Have you heard the one about the Jewish Sumo wrestlers?

Jewish Film Festival opens this week, and it's lineup is no joke

What do sumo wrestlers, transgender elder care workers, émigrés in Vietnam and beauty pageant contestants all have in common? If you answered that they were all encompassed by the spectrum of Jewish cinema in the 21st Century, you’d be right.

The Jewish Film Festival kicks off on Saturday, Feb. 6, with eight days of films that portray a strikingly diverse cross section of people, themes, time periods and cultures — the aforementioned list included.

“If there’s a theme to this year’s festival it is about the diversity of Jewish life,” says Lynn Levine, the Director of the Savannah Jewish Federation, one of the festival’s sponsors.

The festival is entering its fifth year, but those years aren’t all consecutive. The JFF took a hiatus from 2006 until last year, when new festival chairperson and local real estate professional Beth Vantosh took the reigns.

“I’m pretty active in the Jewish community, but I’m also an avid film buff,” says Vantosh.

It wasn’t a lack of support that had put the festival on pause for a few years, but a series of staff turnovers that hampered continuity — the JFF got lost in the shuffle. However, Vantosh and the new festival committee have re–energized the operation and brought a cinephile’s eye to the film selection process.

“I love going to see films, and as you know in Savannah we don’t get that many opportunities because we don’t have an art house cinema anywhere,” she explains.

This year, they combed through more than 60 films to select the 11 that will be presented during the festival.
“They’ve been looking at American and International films, documentaries, dramas, comedies...” Levine says. “I think their eyes are just bloodshot.”

If the committee ended up bleary–eyed from exhaustive research and movie watching, their weariness never adversely affected their judgment because there is a lot of variety and style packed into this year’s JFF — from Jump, one of Patrick Swayze’s final roles, the story of Philippe Halsman, a celebrity photographer unjustly tried for murder, to Gut Shabbes Vietnam, a documentary about a family who leaves Israel to start a new life in Ho Chi Minh City and must search for traces of a Jewish community there.

One of the film screenings that is highly anticipated by both Vantosh and Levine is the quirky dramatic comedy A Matter of Size, which was optioned for a possible U.S. remake last year after several successful festival appearances. It is the story of a group of overweight Israelis who leave behind a diet workshop to pursue Sumo wrestling.

Another of the films that is coming to town with great expectations is the documentary Lady Kul El Arab, the true story of Doaa Fares, a Druze model (ed. note: Druze is a religious community — a reformist offshoot of Islam — found predominantly in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) who enters the Miss Israel pageant and becomes caught between ambition, family and tradition when she finds out that she must be part of the swimsuit competition.

Those are just a few of the films included, but immediately the subject matter and appeal extends far beyond any religion, culture or creed.

“Of course they do all have Israeli or Jewish content, but you don’t need to be Jewish in order to appreciate them,” says Vantosh.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never spun a dreidel, or you don’t know what time of year, or why, Rosh Hashanah takes place - if you’re a fan of film, then you’ll want to check out some of these. You might even learn something.

The Savannah Jewish Film Festival

When: Feb. 8–14, times vary

Where: The JEA (5111 Abercorn St.), except on Feb. 14, which is at the Sentient Bean

Cost: $9/general admission, $7/JEA Members, Seniors, Students

Online: http://savannah.ujcweb.org or call 912–355–8111