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Best of the Jewish Film Fest

Clockwise from upper left: Apples from the Desert, The Polgar Variant, Carvalho's Journey, The Pleasures of Being Out of StepFor 19 years, the Denver Jewish Film Festival has been a highlight on the arts and culture calendar.

Through documentaries and feature films, the festival provides a peek into myriad worlds, be they Israeli society, American Jewish pop culture or French-Jewish life. This year, its 20th, is no different. The line-up promises engaged viewing and discussion.

Before the festival, IJN staff reviewed four of this year’’s films. The festival kicks off Feb. 10. All screenings are at the Elaine Wolf Theatre. Details on the IJN calendar: ijn2.wpengine.com.

“Apples from the Desert,” screening Saturday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m., is a coming-of-age film taking another look into a common theme in Israeli movies and television series — the inherent conflicts between the religious and secular segments of Israeli society.

What happens when Rivka, a cloistered yet rebellious 19-year-old religious woman, ventures out of her world into a folk dance class and meets Duvi, a secular kibbutznik? Throw in an iron-fisted religious father and his traditionally obedient wife, and you have the rumblings of a perfect storm.

While directors Matti Harari and Arik Lubotsky do a good job of portraying religious life —— a blessing is recited before anything is consumed — the kibbutz —— where Rivka immediately notices no mezuzzah on the door and no kosher food —— they subtly come down on the side of the secular life. Rivka’s father’s strict interpretation of his faith and traditions appears to be what drives Rivka away.

While the film’’s premise is not a new one, the characters, especially Rivka (portrayed by Moran Rosenblatt) and her mother Victoria (portrayed by Reymonde Amsallem) are compelling and complex, holding the viewer’s attention to the end.

— Larry Hankin, IJN Associate Editor, larry@ijn.com

“The Polgar Variant,” a 2014 documentary helmed by Israeli Yossi Aviram, is a mystery wrapped inside a puzzle wrapped inside an enigma. No murder is committed; there’s no blood splatter. But the film leaves the viewer speculating long into the night.

Laszlo Polgar, a Jew living in Communist Hungary, predetermined the lives of his daughters and future chess champions  Zsuzsa, Sofi and Judit before their birth.

That’s enough to raise condemnations of soul murder, of which he’s been accused. He’’s also praised as exceptionally brilliant. The world is still deciding, as am I.

An educational psychologist, Laszlo believed that genius children could be raised under controlled circumstances. He even explained the plan to his fiancée Klara, who married Laszlo and dedicated herself to the “grand experiment.”

Zsuzsa was born in 1969, Sofi in 1974 and Judit in 1976. Their parents, via home schooling, taught them math and foreign languages, but the fixation was chess — six to eight hours every day followed by three hours of specialized chess tutoring.

Mixing with other children was a rarity.

Interviewed by the director, Zsuzsa, Sofi and Judit have very different adult lifestyles now. Zsuzsa makes her home in New York, Sofi lives in Israel and Judit, considered the greatest female chess player in history, remains in Budapest.

Their memories differ. Two sisters enjoyed beating cigar-chewing men in tournaments at age four and handily defeating grandmasters in adulthood. One is slightly less enthusiastic.

Laszlo, who was interviewed along with Klara, reveals he lost 90% of his family in the Holocaust. Did this shape his daughters’ fate? “”It had everything to do with it,”” he says.

In the language of this complicated game of strategy, a chess variant (“unorthodox chess”) is related by, derived from or inspired by chess. “The Polgar Variant” is equally unorthodox, and fascinating to watch.

“The Polger Variant” screens Feb. 16 at 5:30 p.m.

— Andrea Jacobs, IJN Senior Writer, andrea@ijn.com

“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step” (2013, dir. David L. Lewis) is an aptly titled documentary about a writer, critic and thinker.

The documentary’’s protagonist, Nat Hentoff, is known by many for his decades-long column in New York’s Village Voice. He was also a foremost jazz critic and called people like Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus friends.

What comes through strongly in the documentary, which is narrated mellifluously by André Braugher, is Hentoff’’s authenticity. This activist loves conflict, his wife jokingly comments, has strong opinions and isn’’t afraid to vocalize them — even when they deviate from what’s expected of him or cause controversy among colleagues.

He so strongly supports the First Amendment that he spoke out in favor of neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill. in the 1970s.

In an age of polarized politics, Hentoff is a breath of fresh air, a person not easily persuaded but eminently open to other perspectives. He takes pleasure in “being out of step,” although at times the film seems to find it hard to accept Hentoff’’s diversity of opinion.

The film’’s rhythm parallels the jazz music Hentoff expertly dissected for magazines like Down Beat. The story cuts back and forth across Hentoff’s life, political stances and career stops.

For Hentoff, jazz embodied the spirit of the Constitution. He calls James Madison an “improviser.”

Fans of Bernie Sanders will probably love this movie, as Sanders is rooted in much of the same ethos as Hentoff. There’s an idealism in both that’s hard to come by in this political age.

“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step” screens Feb. 20 at 9:15 p.m.

— Shana R. Goldberg, IJN Assistant Publisher, shana@ijn.com

Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a Jewish portrait painter who hailed from the flourishing 19th century Charleston Jewish community, got into photography on the ground floor —— very literally. He was among the small seminal group of Americans who became proficient at photography when it was still in its infancy in the 1850s.

The relative scarcity of capable photographers at that time, coupled with Carvalho’s unusual skills, led to his appointment as “daguerreotypist” — essentially a visual chronicler —— on the fifth Western expedition of American explorer and frontiersman John C. Fremont in 1853.

For Carvalho, by then married, a father and settled in Baltimore, the idea of spending months in the still largely unexplored, and quite untamed, American West, was a temptation too thrilling to resist. He quickly agreed to accompany Fremont’s small band of adventurers with the assignment of creating photographs which would be converted into wood engravings for mass publication in Eastern periodicals.

The journey through Kansas, much of what is today Colorado, and Utah became a series of lethal hardships —— delays, blizzards, starvation — which Carvalho managed to survive. Not all members of the party were as fortunate. After being nearly frozen to death and forced to eat their own horses, the survivors eventually found shelter among the early Mormons of Utah, well short of their intended destination.

“Carvalho’’s Journey,” produced and directed by documentary film and TV producer Steve Rico, tells its story intelligently and compellingly. Like its central character, the film traverses an amazingly wide range, encompassing Carvalho’s Jewishness, his uncanny intelligence, Fremont’s driven personality and political ambitions, Native American culture, the virgin American wilderness, even Brigham Young and the earliest members of the Mormon faith.

Although Carvalho is largely unknown today, the film does an excellent job articulating his rightful place in American history, not only as one of this country’s earliest photographers but as a brave and resilient man who risked his life to chronicle a time and a place which, even then, Americans knew couldn’t last forever.

“Carvalho’’s Journey” screens Feb. 15 at 2:30 p.m.

— Chris Leppek, IJN Associate Editor, ijnews@aol.com




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