Brothers become movie mavens to help out Contra Costa film festival

Two of the founding members of the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival have made their favorite picks once again this year. Morton and Irwin Horowitz anticipate that films such as "Trumpet in the Wati," "Left Luggage," "Trembling Before G-d," "Shmelvis" and "Inside Out" will be very well-received when the festival opens March 1 at the CineArts in Pleasant Hill and Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek.

Eight years ago, when the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival first took root, the Horowitz brothers knew very little about film. Today, they are respected members of an 11-person committee that previews many dozens of films throughout the year and selects only a handful of the very best. "But we're still amateurs," Morton cautioned, humbly denying that he and his brother are now movie mavens. "This is a grassroots thing, we're grassroots people, not professionals."

Irwin and Morton, now 73 and 76 respectively, were born and raised in New York. They ran the family-owned jewelry manufacturing business that their father and uncle had started after World War I. Their office in Rockefeller Center overlooked the famous skating rink. In 1984, after retiring and dissolving the business, the brothers packed up their belongings and headed west.

Morton's wife had passed away, and Irwin had never married, so the two decided to share living quarters. They've now done so for nearly two decades, currently making their home in the senior adult community of Rossmoor in Walnut Creek.

By all appearances, the Horowitzes are more than brothers — they are best friends. They are a conspicuous and endearing pair to be sure, finishing each other's sentences much in the sweet manner that a long-married couple might do. When it's pointed out to them, they chuckle — apparently they've been told this before.

The brothers have traveled the world together and have taken on volunteer projects in the community for many years. These days, they spend a great deal of time going to film festivals and previewing selections for Bay Area Jewish audiences. Recently they attended the Palm Springs International Film Festival and noted several films that featured Jewish content — possible contenders for next year's Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival.

Determining whether a film is going to touch and please an audience is the task at hand. "The great movies are obvious," said Morton. "When you see a film, you know that it's good." His brother agreed, adding, "other people know they're good too. There's a meeting of the minds…there are very few arguments."

As for the countries that deliver the best flicks: "Italy makes great films," said Morton. "Canada too."

On the other hand, the brothers aren't as enthusiastic about Israeli films. "Israelis are not up there with the subjects and the story lines," said Irwin.

Morton noted one exception — the Israeli film "Trumpet in the Wati," which will open this year's festival. "That one is very well done, very well acted," he said. Indeed, it was the winner of the 2002 Israeli Oscar for Best Drama.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival is obtaining quality films. "It's a very difficult thing," explained Morton. The film industry is "very selective about who they give the films to. It's about money. And we're into this thing not for money, but to bring something to the community. We're community-minded."

"From what I understand," added Irwin, "they try to hold a film in order to sell it…They don't want to release it too much to the little folks like us, for the simple reason it may devalue the price of the film."

Still, the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival has secured about two dozen films this year, which the Horowitz brothers are confident will please audiences. Among them:

*"Trumpet in the Wati," a love story about an Arab woman and a Russian immigrant who comes to Israel.

* "Left Luggage," a command performance from last year's festival, taking the viewer into the world of the Chassidim.

*"Trembling before G-d," a Sundance Film Festival winner and thought-provoking look at gay Orthodox Jews.

*"Shmelvis," about two documentary filmmakers researching a story on Elvis Presley's Jewish ancestor.

* "Inside Out," the tale of a Jewish actress recruited to direct a town's annual Christmas pageant.

The festival is likely to attract a greater number of young people than ever before, a trend the Horowitz brothers have been noticing. This is also reflected on the festival committee itself. "My brother and I are the oldest persons on the committee," said Morton. "But we have all young people who are interested in film, coming in to take our place.

"I encourage that. I see that as a positive thing. People want to learn…It's about learning about life."

As for the extraordinary friendship and lifelong working partnership between the brothers, Morton and Irwin chalk it up to two things: "We're not greedy, and we haven't got egos. That's the secret."