Even as a young congregation, University Synagogue was committed to the powerful sense of connection and informal education that film could bring to people of all ages, levels of knowledge, and degrees of religious experience. Always interested in outreach, the 23-year-old Reconstructionist congregation has been presenting the film series to the community for 21 years. The Orange County International Jewish Film Festival is, indeed, the oldest film festival in Orange County.
“This has become one of the top educational and cultural events of the year at University Synagogue,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, who has been the spiritual leader of the congregation since 1991. “We’ve truly made it international, with 10 films from nine countries this year, and we’ve tried to reach out to the entire community.”
Rachlis added, “The films were really hard to get, and for every one we chose, we watched at least 10. More importantly, they’re the kinds of films that really get people to think. They get people truly involved.”
The rabbi was quick to point out how much the vision and scope of the film festival have grown under the guidance of Gene Alterman. Alterman, who has developed working relationships with Jewish film festivals in the U.S. and Canada, has helped to enlarge the festival from three films to ten films with fifteen showings. Participants will see La Raffle, the highest grossing film in France, before it officially opens in American theaters, and they will meet the 90-year-old brother of the woman depicted in Hana’s Suitcase.
Guiding the moviegoers in discussion will be one of the most knowledgeable authorities on films in the country, psychologist/screenwriter/playwright Michael Berlin, who has written, produced, or consulted on more than one hundred and fifty television episodes. His feature films include Anguish, winner of six European Film Awards, Breaking Point for Paramount and Republic Pictures and the Robo-Warrior series for Paramount Pictures. Currently the film curator at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Dr. Berlin has consulted with the Newport Beach Film Festival, the Orange County Museum of Art and the Orange County Performing Arts Center and is the founder of the Jewish Film Festival of Orange County. He teaches film writing and producing and other classes at California State University, Long Beach, and a class at UC Irvine’s Extension, “Sneak Previews with Michael Berlin.”
All films will be shown at the Regal Westpark 8 Cinema in Irvine, which offers comfort and top-of-the-line equipment, according to Rabbi Rachlis. From the corporate office to the management of the theater, Regal Entertainment Group has been a key player in the historic success of the film series, he said.
Tickets for the film festival, which will be running on Sundays and Wednesdays from January through March, are on sale through University Synagogue (949/553-4034), as well as Temple Beth Tikvah (714/871-3535) and Temple Beth Sholom (714/628-4600). Five films are being shown at two different times (9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.) on Sunday mornings, preceded by a bagel breakfast. Five other films are taking place on Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. Here is the schedule:
Sunday, January 9: Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger is a coming-of-age story about young Esther trying to fit into a posh private school with taunting classmates. She must also deal with her perfectionist mother’s preparations for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah.
Sunday, January 23: La Raffle is an important historical film that tells the harrowing true story of the roundup of Jews living in Paris by French police in 1942. The French authorities, who pandered to the Nazis, sent 13,000 men, women, and children to Auschwitz. The film opened the Jerusalem Film Festival before 6,000 people in an outdoor theater and was the largest grossing film in France this year.
Sunday, February 6: Lebanon tells the story of the first Lebanon War as a lone tank and paratrooper platoon are dispatched to search a hostile town in June 1982. A simple mission turns into a nightmare when the four members of the tank crew find themselves in a violent situation that they cannot contain.
Sunday, March 13: Sixty Six takes place in summer 1966 when England is consumed by World Cup fever as Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah approaches. His parents are distracted by concerns about their business, and Bernie is worried that the World Cup final will take place in London on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. He tries to deter this outcome, but England gets to the finals versus Germany.
Sunday, March 27: Brothers tells the story of two estranged brothers who reunite in Israel. The reunion is fraught with difficulty: one brother is a secular Israeli, fighting to keep his struggling kibbutz going, while the other is a Brooklyn-based scholar and attorney who comes to Jerusalem to defend the exemption of yeshiva students from compulsory military service.
Wednesday, January 19: Hana’s Suitcase, a pre-World War II documentary about two young Czechoslovakian children and the terrible events they had to endure because they were Jewish, is based on a book that has been translated into forty languages. It ties in with a story about some Japanese children who received a battered suitcase sent from Auschwitz with the name Hana Brady on it and how they and their teacher solved its mystery and memories.
Wednesday, February 2: Anita is a young woman with Down syndrome who loses her mother in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. The helpless Anita tries to find her only to get lost in the city. She wanders for several days, confused as her world had been limited to her mother’s company. The people she meets are unable to help her.
Wednesday, February 16: Nora’s Will is the story of Nora’s suicide, her ex-husband Jose’s attempts to comply with the rabbi’s instructions about her burial, and Jose’s discovery of a photograph hidden among Nora’s effects. The photograph changes everyone’s perspective about Nora.
Wednesday, March 2: Holy Rollers tells how one million Ecstasy pills were smuggled into the U.S. in 1998 by a group of Hasidic Jews. In Brooklyn a youth from an Orthodox Jewish community is lured into becoming an Ecstasy dealer by his pal who has ties to an Israeli drug cartel.
Wednesday, March 23: Gripsholm, based on Kurt Tucholsky’s novel, Schloss Gripsholm, plunges the audience into the decadent world of Berlin cabaret in the early 1930s. Tucholsky, an intellectual whose wrote risqué lyrics for the cabaret and inflammatory articles about the Nazis, fled to Sweden with his friends.