It can be hard to feel festive these days. But the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, beginning Nov. 7 and running until Nov. 21, is inviting movie lovers everywhere to celebrate a raft of exciting new Jewish cinema as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Though not a festival in the traditional sense — there won’t be the typical sprinkling of live screenings at venues across the city — this year’s GPJFF still provides viewers with the chance to see new Jewish documentaries, short films and features.
Additionally, virtual attendees will have the chance to see a performance and dance workshop by Ariel Rivka Dance, take a class on writing for television with “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and sit in on a Jewish visual artist showcase and panel on the intersection of art and activism. Interviews with actors and subjects that may have taken place before or after a screening have been prerecorded, along with directors’ introductions to their films.
“It is important to my colleagues and me that the festival retains as much of its character and charm as possible — even as it goes virtual,” GPJFF Executive Artistic Director Olivia Antsis said. “We are doing everything we can to make sure that festival-goers and sponsors still feel connected and engaged.”
One way they’ll do that is with 40th birthday boxes filled with festival swag and seasonal goodies as a thank-you to all sponsors.
Though this year is no one’s idea of a normal festival, there are some changes for the day that in-person screenings could be held again; the festival’s new virtual platform, at watch.pjff.org, may become an annual occurrence to go along with the live screenings. And forgive Antsis for repeating herself, as she does each year. She really thinks this lineup could be one of the best ones yet.
Here are reviews of three movies set to be screened at this year’s festival:
“Shiva Baby,” directed by Emma Seligman. Nov. 19, 8 p.m.
Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby,” titled after a loud and disruptive infant who is inexplicably brought to a somber and muted ritual, was adapted from her 2018 short film. The story has expanded from the original, but Seligman wisely chose to retain the actress at the center of the movie: Rachel Sennott, a young comedian and the GPJFF “Rising Star.”
In a comedy that frequently calls for the deployment of a well-timed dead-eyed stare, Sennott does so with great skill. Though the characters at the shiva play it a little too broadly to be much more than Jewish “types” (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper are the parents to Sennott’s character), a wild confluence of romantic circumstances and Seligman’s eye for the ridiculous keep the movie bouncy and entertaining.
“Honeymood,” directed by Tayla Lavie. Nov. 14, 8 p.m.
Filmmakers who dare to try and make a contemporary romantic comedy are in a particularly difficult spot. The genre is increasingly populated by movies that seek to create ironic distance from the original strictures of the romantic comedy, to the degree that romantic comedies that poke fun at conventions of romantic comedy have themselves become conventional. But what’re you going to do — play it straight?
Lavie refuses to be boxed in by either option. The director of “Zero Motivation,” one of the most critically lauded Israeli movies of the last decade, has written a keenly observed, wonderfully acted romantic comedy that’s funny in any language, though we would advise reading the subtitles.
A newly married couple experiences about two minutes of domestic bliss before the bride discovers that her groom’s ex-girlfriend has gifted him with a mysterious ring — on their wedding night! Her determination to return the ring that very night sets them off on a madcap rush around Jerusalem.
Right at the point where you think you know what Lavie is doing, she takes another left turn. Don’t miss this one.
“Breaking Bread,” directed by Beth Elise Hawk. Nov. 21, 8 p.m.
It’s hard to say if the food in “Breaking Bread” looks especially delicious, or if the sight of people happily enjoying the inside of a restaurant feels like watching an especially extravagant fantasy. Either way, Beth Elise Hawk’s documentary about the Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who seek to bridge cultural divides with food is a delight.
movie follows the chefs who will take part in the Haifa-based A-sham Arab Food Festival, which will require pairings of Jewish and Arab chefs to collaborate on traditional dishes. The characters of this world are uniformly intriguing, and so distinctly Israeli; there is something unmistakably of the Promised Land about a shot of a cramped hummus restaurant, owned by a Jewish wife and Arab husband, menu items scrawled onto a simple board, walls sagging with hamsas and Jewish paintings, the top of one diner’s buttocks in full view.
The movie begins with a quote from Anthony Bourdain, and it’s very much from the Bourdain school of culinary entertainment. It dispenses with the idea that we’re “all the same,” but believes fervently in the power of a table full of good food to be the place where our commonalities are most easily summoned.