Two films about the contributions of Jewish comedians to American culture open and close this year’s Northern Virginia Jewish Film Festival in Fairfax.
The 14th annual festival began Thursday with “When Comedy Went to School” and ends March 30 with “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story.”
Scheduled between the bookend comedy films are nine other movies and a 19-minute short in a mix of offerings described by festival organizers, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, as “heart, history, humor and hope.”
“They’re all standouts,” said festival director Dan Kirsch, who also is the JCC’s cultural arts director. “Overall, what we’ve noted in the past three to five years is that the quality of films is increasing every year.”
Kirsch said he reviewed 60 movies before selecting the final dozen. Two films will screen at the Jewish Community Center on Little River Turnpike, but most will screen at the Angelika Film Center & Café at Mosaic, also in Fairfax.
“We’re so glad we’re going back,” Kirsch said. “It’s an eight-screen, state-of-the-art cinema, with a food corner and a lounge that connects to town center. It has wine, beer and concessions and a nationally known chef.”
“When Comedy Went to School” features footage of comedians Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, Robert Klein, Jerry Lewis and others, who developed their skills in the Borscht Belt in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
The film will accompany the opening-night dinner at the JCC. A closing-night reception with dessert will accompany “The David Steinberg Story” at the Angelika.
A Canadian and one-time rabbinical student, Steinberg performed mock sermons on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in the late 1960s that endeared him to audiences, but not to the censors at CBS.
Several of the festival films will run at both locations more than once. A complete listing is available at jccnv.org.
“The Jewish Cardinal” is a dramatization of the life of the French Catholic Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who was born Aaron Lustiger to Polish Jewish parents living in France after World War I.
When the Germans occupied northern France in 1940, Lustiger was sent to live with a Christian family in Orléans and converted to Catholicism at age 13.
The Germans deported his parents, and his mother was killed in Auschwitz.
Lustiger, who died in 2007, served as archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005. He was well known for working to reconcile Jews and Catholics after World War II.
“I think he certainly had a rich understanding of Judaism and Catholicism,” said Victoria Barnett of Alexandria, who met him during his visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 2006.
Barnett is staff director of the Committee on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the museum.
“He understood both traditions; he could speak to both groups,” she said. “It was part of the gift he brought to his work.”
Barnett will talk about her memories of Lustiger and the work of the museum after the 7:15 p.m. screening of the film on Sunday.
Lustiger supported the mission of Father Patrick Desbois, who has spent years locating the unmarked graves of murdered Jews in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to records stored at the Holocaust museum.
“We have a huge library and archives,” Barnett said.
“The history of both the Protestant and Catholic churches is complicated and varied by region,” she said about the war in Europe. “In general, there were hardly any church leaders who did enough [to stop the persecution of Jews].”
Accompanying “The Jewish Cardinal” on Sunday is the short film, “Moses on the Mesa.” It is the true story about Jewish trader Solomon Bibo, who emigrated from Germany to the American Southwest looking for the mythical El Dorado and became governor of a New Mexico pueblo in 1885.
Some of this year’s other festival movies deal directly with the Holocaust, including “Süskind,” which also is based on a true story.
In 1942, a German Jewish salesman living in Amsterdam named Walter Süskind was forced to take over a theater converted to deport Jews to the Westerbork transit camp in the northeast Netherlands.
Süskind successfully deceived Nazi officers and helped nearly 1,000 Jewish children evade deportation and escape with the help of Dutch resistance fighters.
Set in Poland, “Aftermath” is about two Polish brothers living today who confront the participation of their family and their town in the murder of Jews during the war.
The movie was inspired by the Jedwabne pogrom, in which more than 340 Jews were murdered by Nazis with the complicity of Poles.
“It’s the ripple effect,” said Kirsch about people having to deal with the deeds of their forefathers.
Argentina’s entry in the 2014 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film category, “The German Doctor” is a psychological thriller inspired by the escape of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele to Argentina.
Known as the “Angel of Death,” Mengele conducted genetic experiments on people imprisoned in Auschwitz.
In the movie, a Nazi criminal assumes a false identity and meets a German-speaking couple relocating to an isolated part of Patagonia. He gets to know them and takes an abnormal interest in their children.
“It’s about how he went into hiding ... and affected other people,” Kirsch said.
The festival also features movies dealing with interfaith efforts, something the JCC of Northern Virginia is particularly interested in.
“Forty percent of our members are not Jewish,” Kirsch said. “We need to stay aware about how to connect to multiple faiths.”
“Under the Same Sun” is a movie set in the future about the achievement of peace between Israel and Palestine in 2013 and a joint venture by an Israeli and a Palestinian to start a solar energy company.
The two entrepreneurs start a Facebook campaign that supports both the new business and the peace process.
The film was co-produced by Amir Harel, an Academy Award-nominated Israeli producer, and directed by Sameh Zoabi, a leading Palestinian filmmaker who lives in Israel.
Speaking at the movie will be American co-producer John Marks, founder and president of the nonprofit Search for Common Ground, based in Washington, D.C., and Ralph Robbins, executive director of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board.
Introducing the film “Dancing in Jaffa” will be Andy Shallal, an Iraqi American activist, artist and owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants and bookstores, one of which is located in Arlington.
The movie is about well-known ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine’s efforts to pair Israeli and Palestinian children on the same dance floor.
On Saturday, the JCC also will present for children a free showing of the Washington, D.C., premiere of “Igor and the Cranes’ Journey,” a movie about an estranged father who studies migrating birds in Russia and his 11-year-old son, who has moved to Israel with his ex-wife. They are brought together by their mutual interest in a young crane named Karl.
The screening at the JCC is for children 10 and older, and reservations are requested. The movie also will screen twice at the Angelika theater.
The themes vary from movie to movie, but the films in this year’s festival have one thing in common, Kirsch said.
“The unifying factor is quality,” he said.