Gershman Film Fest Marks First Independent Year

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A still from “Picture of His Life”
A still from “Picture of His Life,” directed by Dani Menken (Courtesy of Hey Jude Productions)

For the first time in its 39-year history, the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival — also known as Fall Fest — will take place as the signature event of an independent film institution, rather than as the signature event of a Jewish arts and culture institution (the recently departed Gershman Y). It’s been a whirlwind year for the GPJFF, developing new programs Festival Plus! and the upcoming Jewish New Media Fest as the organization began a new era.

This year’s lineup at Fall Fest, which runs from Nov. 9 to Nov. 23, reflects some of those changes, according to Olivia Antsis, executive artistic director of the GPJFF. For one thing, the lineup itself is a bit smaller than usual.

“It made our lineup stronger this year, but also a lot more dynamic, engaging and exciting,” said Antsis.

As usual, the films have been selected from the major festivals, from Telluride to Tribeca to Toronto, and seek to showcase the best of American and international Jewish cinema. There are an equal number of documentary and narrative features, reflecting an audience request, as well as a higher number of uplifting films, another result of feedback. (The majority of the pool of contemporary Jewish films, Antsis said with a laugh, do not fit the latter criteria.)

The lineup includes 20 feature-length films — some new releases, others of an older vintage — along with the ever-popular shorts program. In a year of firsts, the Fall Fest brings another: For the first time, they’ll show a live-theater-on-film feature, a filmed performance of “Golda’s Balcony,” starring Tovah Feldshuh.

When it was on Broadway, it was the longest-running one-woman show in the history of the Great White Way; now, you can catch it at the National Museum of American Jewish History at 2 p.m. on Nov. 20.

The festival opens on Nov. 9 with “Picture of His Life,” a documentary about world-renowned Israeli nature photographer Amos Nachoum. Nachoum, a 65-year-old from Jaffa, is preparing for the most challenging expedition of his career, a trip to the Canadian Arctic to photograph polar bears.

The director, Dani Menken, will attend the screening (which will be in 4K), and attendees are invited to a postfilm reception at the venue, the Philadelphia Film Center.

Menken will also present the annual Master Class, GPJFF’s collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s Cinema and Media Studies Department, a space-limited class the following morning on Penn’s campus.

Antsis highly recommends one of this year’s Spotlight Films, “Carl Laemmle.” Laemmle was a German-born Jewish immigrant who founded Universal Pictures and saved over 300 Jewish families from the Nazis. Known as Uncle Carl, Laemmle brought together filmmakers as disparate as John Ford and Walt Disney in creating one of the first true film empires, and Hollywood as a major cultural force.

Another Spotlight Film recommended by Antsis: “Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story.” This documentary illustrates the life and work of Keret, the internationally beloved writer whose short stories and other works have been translated into 37 languages.

The movie features interviews with admirers like Ira Glass and Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as intervening animated versions of his stories that try to capture what it is that makes them so special to so many people around the world.

That movie will be screened on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Vine Street branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Funnily enough, the movie features a snippet of GPJFF employees walking into a Keret reading at that very library.

“This is something I know our audience is going to be interested in,” Antsis said.

For narrative films, Antsis highlighted several older movies in the “From the Vaults” category.

On Nov. 17, at 2 p.m. at NMAJH, audiences can see the 1974 film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” based on the Mordecai Richler novel of the same name, starring Richard Dreyfuss.

“Kravitz,” directed by Ted Kotcheff, represented a seminal moment for Canadian cinema, as it was the biggest commercial success Canada had ever had with film.

Also of nostalgic interest is the 1978 feature “Girlfriends,” directed by Claudia Weill, about two Jewish women in New York in the late ’70s. The film not only served as inspiration to “Girls” showrunner Lena Dunham, who asked Weill to direct an episode of her HBO series, but also supposedly influenced filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Noah Baumbach.

That blast from the past screens on Nov. 20 at 7 p.m., also at NMAJH.

Some films will be amplified by post-screening discussion and special guest appearances.

Comedian H. Allan Scott, a gay ex-Mormon cancer survivor, coverts to Judaism in the documentary “Latter Day Jew,” which screens Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Scott will appear at the screening, along with the film’s director, Aliza Rosen, and producer Todd Shotz, an Elkins Park native who won the first-ever qFLIX Philadelphia Producer Award in 2016.

Good Morning Son,” another Spotlight Film, tells the story of an Israeli family that must learn to cope with their new lives after their son is left in a coma following a botched military operation in Gaza. It was directed by festival alum Sharon Bar-Ziv (“Room 514”), who also stars in the movie. That screening will have a discussion afterward with special guest Amir Bogen, film journalist for Tablet and Ynetnews. Film and talk will be at the Ritz East on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m.

Antsis predicts an especially high demand for “Standing Up, Falling Down,” the closing-night comedy shown at the Philadelphia Film Center at 7:30 on Nov. 23.

Starring Billy Crystal and Ben Schwartz, it’s the story of a struggling comedian (Schwartz) who moves back from L.A. to Long Island, only to strike up an unlikely friendship with Crystal’s character. The screening will be followed by a closing night party at Attico Rooftop Bar at 219 S. Broad St.

For more information and tickets, call 215-545-4400 or visit PJFF.org.

[email protected]; 215-832-0740

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