Jewish film fest presents Israel beyond the headlines with stories of loves, interests of everyday

With Middle East violence prompting more and more Americans to cancel their El Al flight reservations, Riva Gambert suggests another way to get close to Israel.

Grab your popcorn and head for the movie theater.

With the eighth annual Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival set to begin tomorrow, Bay Area cineastes will gain the kind of front-row perspective on Israeli life only the movies can provide.

As festival director, Gambert believes she has the best job in the world: prowling cinema art houses and regional festivals across the country, then booking the cream of the crop for the East Bay program.

"People are tired of the teen-driven films Hollywood is putting out," says Gambert, director of community programming for the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay. "They want films that make them think, that aren't tied up neatly with a ribbon at the end of the last reel."

That's precisely what she hopes to provide at this year's festival, which runs until Friday, March 7.

Not only does the festival boast some of the finest recent cinema out of Israel, this year's line-up also includes films from South Africa, Canada, France, Germany, Britain and the United States, each one by, for, or about Jews. The films are chosen based on input from a committee of local residents and Jewish film festival directors from throughout the world. Dozens of films are previewed before a handful of the best is chosen.

Subjects touched on in the various films run the gamut from Elvis Presley's Jewish connection ("Schmelvis: Searching For the King's Jewish Roots") to Jewish chicken farmers in Petaluma ("A Home On The Range") to the struggles of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews ("Trembling Before G-d").

Presented in cooperation with the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay and Contra Costa Jewish Community Center, this year's festival welcomes a new partner, CineArts/Century 5 Theaters in Pleasant Hill. Every night throughout the one-week event, screenings will take place in that theater, as well as at the JCC in Walnut Creek.

Gambert reports that many of this year's films turned out to have a common link. "After we chose the line-up, we noticed a theme of romantic relationships — gay, Arab-Israeli, convoluted love triangles. Many of the films have some sort of romance as their theme."

Among the best in show this year is "A Trumpet in the Wadi," which won the 2002 Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for Best Film. It makes its Bay Area premiere with a screening at the CineArts Theater on the festival's opening night.

Based on the best-selling novel by Israeli author Sami Michael and co-directed by Lina and Slava Chaplin, "A Trumpet in the Wadi" tells the story of Alex, a Russian-born Jewish emigre to Israel, and his unlikely love affair with Huda, the Christian Arab woman who lives in the apartment upstairs.

Shot in Haifa's Wadi Nisnas and featuring a cast of Hebrew, Arabic and Russian-speaking actors, the film opens a window onto an aspect of Israeli society most arm-chair observers rarely encounter: the tense, yet at times close, interaction between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

While the film plays up the estrangement between Arab and Jew, the multi-ethnic cast and crew managed to experience true camaraderie.

Said co-director Lina Chaplin, "The relations [on the set] were exceptionally warm and friendly, and all our working differences were solved quickly and easily. We wondered all the time why it is so easy to come to an agreement in a micro situation and so impossible in a macro one."

Another must-see film is "Sherman in Winter," a riveting 2001 release from director Ori Inbar. Strongly influenced by American-style police dramas, the film follows the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl in northern Israel to its ultimately tragic end.

Leading the investigation is the rumpled Columbo-like detective Israel Sherman, who must balance his devotion to strict Jewish religious observance with his dedication to solving the basest of crimes.

Disturbing for its scenes of graphic violence and police brutality, "Sherman in Winter" subverts the impression many American Jews have of Israel as a model society beset by problems mostly from without.

That makes it all the more worth seeing, according to Gambert.

"Israeli cinema often presents unsentimental, quirky personalities," she says. "The films are issues-oriented, with no holds barred. They deal with an Israel beyond the headlines, focusing on real Israelis with their loves and interests."

Most gratifying to Gambert is the growth the festival has enjoyed over the past eight years, all the while bringing a wealth of Jewish cinema to the East Bay. "People thank us for bringing fine films to central Contra Costa County," she notes, "because not everyone can get into San Francisco. We make the films more accessible to people."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.