From the early days of Hollywood, films involving Jewish themes have been an integral part of the movie business. The first feature-length Hollywood “talkie” film, where both music and dialogue were on the filmstrip itself, was the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer.” The movie depicted a young man struggling over his decision between the stage and the traditions of his devout Jewish family.
This legacy in film continues this month and next with the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival (Jan. 11-21) and the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival (Feb. 11-25). These two festivals have become significant cultural events in their respective communities and are considered major players in the Jewish film festival arena.
This year, the Tucson festival will bring 21 Jewish films from around the globe to local screens.
“We have movies that make you laugh and ones that have you on the edge of your seat,” says Shira Brandenburg, director of the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival. “We have a thriller for opening night; we have love stories, ones that make your heart feel; and others that are about the political issues in the world that are so important to talk about. Each one is a conversation starter.”
There was a film that almost didn’t make it into the line-up for the Phoenix festival. “Our line up was closed, and a film called ‘Itzhak’ came in, and I pressed them to include it,” says Linda Mittelman, who is the co-artistic director, along with Lois Ruben, of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival.
The film showcases the life and music of violinist Itzhak Perlman. Linda shares a funny story about the musician. “My husband and I had seen Perlman in a restaurant in California after a Hollywood Bowl performance,” she recounts. “There he was at the head of his table with straws up his nose! He is full of comedy and such a musical genius – it was wonderful to see. I tell that story, and people always think I am kidding – I am not kidding!”
Another film about musicians, “They Played for Their Lives,” is part of the opening day lineup for Phoenix. The movie follows eight survivors who share how music saved their lives in the ghettos and concentration camps. “It’s heavy and emotional. Two of the people in the film, both in their 90s, one is a whistler and one plays the harmonica, are slated to come – if they are up to it,” says Linda The writer and director will also be at the opening.
There are always special guests and speakers at a film festival, and Tucson has several this year. One, in particular, will be appearing on Jan. 20. Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein, will introduce and take questions following the film, “On the Waterfront.” The classic film features Bernstein’s only original film score. This screening is one of the first events of the Tucson Desert Song Festival’s “Bernstein at 100” celebration of the life and music of the composer.
Another special guest in Tucson is cartoonist and Rey Foundation Executive Director Nat Scrimshaw. Nat will be giving a “chalk talk” after the screening of “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators.” The creators of Curious George, Hans and Margret Rey, were a German-Jewish couple that fled Nazi-occupied France on makeshift bicycles, secretly carrying the unpublished Curious George manuscript with them. Nat will draw the curious little monkey and distribute the drawings to the audience as he discusses the evolution of Curious George.
“At the same time as the film screening, we will be holding a separate free event for families and kids to come and meet Curious George,” explains Shira. “We will have PJ Library doing readings and a refugee backpack packing program too, since the Reys were refugees.”
Something fun for the kids this year is that they got to star in their own short film called “Bank Robbery.” Last summer, the Tucson J’s camp had a film theme. “The kids made films, and we took the winner and put it into the festival,” says Shira. “It’s all kids from the camp acting in it, and the counselors were cinematographers – it’s adorable and something new to add a little bit of connection to what we do here at The J.” The film is also dedicated to the memory of David Caplan, z”l, for his participation on the TIJFF committee.
The entire Phoenix festival is dedicated to Sheldon Pierson, one of the founders, who passed away on Nov. 22, 2017, at the age of 92. “He was the inspiration for the film festival,” says Linda. “He wasn’t actively involved, but would come to the screenings and was very vital right to the end.”
Whether you live in Tucson or the Valley, or plan on traveling to experience both of these fabulous festivals, either way, you will be treated to a variety of movie genres. But there will be one common thread – they all will have a Jewish theme, continuing the more than 90-year-old tradition.