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The Maine Jewish Film Festival Returns: In its 22nd year, screening more than 40 unique films about the richness and resilience of the Jewish experience

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Taking place in five towns across the state, the Maine Jewish Film Festival is back for its 22nd year, this time with a subtheme of musical excellence.
 
Opening with the Argentinian film The Last Suit, about an 88-year-old tailor who makes the long trip from Buenos Aires to Poland to see the friend who saved his life at the end of WWII, the MJFF brings over 40 documentary, narrative, and children’s films to screen in area theaters from March 9 to 17. Collecting films about America’s first fast-food restaurant (The Automat), a documentary about ‘women helping women’ in the heart of Brooklyn’s Hasidic Community (93 Queen), a biopic about the complex life of Maus comic book artist Art Spiegelman (The Art of Spiegelman), an unlikely musical combo between a Jewish harmonica player and a Harlem blues legend who played with James Brown and Etta James (Satan and Adam), and a doc about Jane Jacobs, the New York City planning activist and writer whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is one of the most quietly influential texts in the 20th century (Citizen Jane: Battle Cry For the City).
 
Like past festivals, the over 40 films offered here feature a wealth of subject matter, genres and experiences. Audiences can find romances, comedies, sports rivalries, deeply personal family stories, immigrant journeys, historical reenactments of heroic exploits, film noir thrillers, and much more across the impressively diverse roster. According to executive director Barbara Merson, the dizzying selection is all part of the festival’s underlying mission of uniting people across cultures to showcase the richness and resilience of the Jewish experience.
 
With special concerts planned during screenings including an Old Blues Kats show in the Portland Museum of Art cafe before the poignant blues documentary Satan and Adam, live piano accompaniment by Carolyn Swartz during the classic Yiddish silent film Jewish Luck, and Portland’s Primo Cubano jamming out on closing night before the screening of The Mamboniks, an aptly paired documentary about how Jewish and Latin cultures met on dance floors in 1950s New York City. Another film, the Grammy-nominated Itzhak, celebrates the life of legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman and engages viewers on questions of Jewish identity in between some stunning musical arrangements. “How do you find historical truth when there are so many different points of view? That’s another theme that’s important today,” said Merson. “We’re hoping to broaden the horizons of Jews and non-Jews alike. We don’t all have broad international experiences. Our mission is to provide a safe space for people to explore.”
 
If you’re after films with a political bent, here are three documentaries the Phoenix previewed from this year’s festival.

Inside the Mossad | Dir: Duki Dror 

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Established in 1949, Mossad, or the Institute for Intelligence and Special operations, is one of five intelligence operations in Israel that focuses on foreign affairs. It’s basically Israeli’s equivalent of the CIA, and like the CIA, it's been a mechanism for humanitarian aid missions and a target of allegations of human rights abuses. On one hand these secret agents helped bring former Nazis to justice, and on the other, they’ve acted with impunity and carried out a number of extrajudicial assassinations abroad.

In the 2017 documentary Inside the Mossad, Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror collects a series of interviews with former Mossad agents, who tell stories of their years within the agency for the first time. The film serves as a morbidly fascinating character study on the kind of people capable of carrying out assassinations, and an interrogation into how, as Dror sees it, “actions taken by someone unknown, somewhere in the world could impact history.”

“I felt like drawn into a chess game trying to pull get access into the mind and heart of my interviewees,” says Dror. “They were not easy at all but as they started to trust me, they opened a door that they has been kept shut for years. I wanted to learn and understand the human dilemmas they had. I wanted to know how decisions they made and the actions they took changed the course of history.”

With interviews presented without any overarching political statements or moral judgments, Inside the Mossad doesn’t sugarcoat the complexity, and in some cases brutality, of what some Mossad operations were like. The ones we know about anyways.

March 14 | Thu 6 pm | Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St, Portland | $10

Who Will Write Our History | Dir: Roberta Grossman 

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In Who Will Write Our History, filmmaker Roberta Grossman puts to screen a retelling of what she believes to be the most important unknown event of the Holocaust, and a stunning example of Jewish resistance.

In November 1940, days after Nazis sealed away some 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, a 60+ resistance group formed wielding not pistols but pens. Amidst the brutal occupation, a courageous group of journalists, scholars, and historians met in secret to counter Nazi propaganda by commissioning their own essays, songs, and stories of the war. They also collected physical artifacts and buried some 60,000 pages of documentation in the ground in the hopes that the archive would survive and one day they’d “scream truth to the world.”

Reenactments are hit or miss — especially with such sensitive source material — but the three main actors do a tasteful job and the voiceover work is excellent. Between the dramatizations are interviews with Polish Jewish archivists and scholars, adding historical accuracy to a project that truly honors the almost forgotten legacy of the Oyneg Shabes archive.

“Historians concur that the Oyneg Shabes Archive is the richest cache of eyewitness, contemporaneous accounts to survive the Holocaust,” said Grossman. “Despite its importance, the archive remains largely unknown outside academic circles. It is my hope that Who Will Write Our History will change that in the way that only a film can do, by making the story accessible to millions of people around the world.”

March 10 | Sun noon | Bates College, Olin Arts Center, 75 Russell St, Lewiston | March 11 | Mon noon | Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St, Portland | $10

Eldorado | Dir: Marcus Imhoof

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The Swiss nomination for Best Foreign Documentary, Eldorado attempts to make sense of the sprawling, chaotic, and tragic nature of the modern refugee crisis. Director Marcus Imhoof draws a parallel to the aftermath of World War II, when mass human migration into Europe was also met with strict crackdowns, and colors it with a deeply personal story from his youth, recalling when his family took in an 8-year-old Italian girl for several months in Switzerland before being forced into deportation by authorities. Eldorado tells this story of this girl (named Giovanna) through old photographs and voiceover work, intercut with graphic footage and interviews from the Italian government’s Operation Mare Nostrum at sea, as well as a refugee camp in Southern Italy.

Eldorado asks viewers are left to ponder the ethics of global immigration policies. Why do goods and capital move so freely across borders and into Europe, but the human beings that create that wealth are held back? “Money, rich people and goods travel globally; the poor must stay where they are,” said Imhoof. “While doing research, I soon discovered how tightly related these themes are, and that the theme of migration cannot be told independently from the topic of money. This crisis is not over, it is merely beginning. Soon, refugees from climate change will arrive, too.”

This is a somber film, but a necessary one to counter mainstream news narratives that fail to humanize the people on the other side of this crisis.

March 14 | Thu 7:30 pm | Bates College, Olin Arts Center, 75 Russell St, Lewiston | $10


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