Maine Jewish Film Fest

Films of night and day

By Dagney C. Ernest | Mar 13, 2019
“Budapest Noir” exploits the beauty and danger of between-the-wars Europe.

Rockland — Daylight is returning, but Saturday, March 16, will bring cinematic darkness — in the form of a lush film noir — to the Midcoast, courtesy of the 22nd annual Maine Jewish Film Festival.

For several years now, the MJFF has made Rockland’s Strand Theatre one of its sites. The fest opened March 9 and runs through Sunday, March 17. While many of the screenings and related events take place in Portland, shows in Brunswick, Waterville, Lewiston, Bangor and, yes, Rockland, also are on the Maine Jewish Film Festival schedule.

This year, there are two film programs at Rockland’s downtown Strand. MJFF will screen “Budapest Noir” (2017, Hungary) Saturday, March 16, at 5:30 p.m.; and the double-short-film program of “The Art of Spiegelman” (2010, USA/France) and “Broken Branches” (2014, Israel) Sunday, March 17, at 3 p.m. Belfast’s Linda Garson Smith will introduce both screenings.

“Budapest Noir,” set in 1936, has been a hit in Europe and made the film festival rounds. It’s a fascinating film that can be appreciated on many different levels, according to MJFF Executive Director Barbara Merson.

“It has a strong historic background as to what Europe was like in the period between the two world wars. It has some incredible scenery and you really feel like you're living in Budapest at the time,” she said.

Merson also praised the film’s acting and engaging characters, as well as its film noir cred. Little wonder that in addition to the Rockland screening, “Budapest Noir,” directed by Éva Gárdos, will be screened in a coveted festival slot.

“We usually try to have like a date night film on Friday night, so that's when it’s playing in Portland,” she said.

The Sunday matinee selection at the Strand also will get an earlier screening in Portland, where MJFF sites include the Portland Museum of Art, Nickelodeon Cinemas, the Jewish Community Alliance and the St. Lawrence Center. The two-fer program, dubbed Family, Art & Loss, solved a problem for festival organizers in that it pairs a little-too-short feature with a little-too-long short film.

“It actually came out of a conversation we had at a film festival, sort of saying, gee, wouldn't it be cool if there was a movie about Art Spiegelman, because we all are really interested in him. We did some research and yes, not only was there a movie, but it was a really good movie,” Merson said.

Spiegelman is best known for “Maus,” the first graphic novel to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In “The Art of Spiegelman” a French documentary directed by Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck, he reveals how the story came out of a series of recorded conversations with his father.

“Broken Branches” tells the tale of director and animator Ayala Sharot’s grandmother, who was sent, at age 14, by her parents from Poland to Israel on the eve of World War II and never saw her family again.

“It's a beautiful, beautiful film — the animation is incredible! And the story in the film is a very touching story,” said Merson.

Both films pair art and animation with family stories in a way that makes for a compelling festival offering. Given the strong visual art element, the Farnsworth Art Museum is a partner for the Sunday show.

“The Spiegelman film is about his family, his father and his mother, and then his children, as well. And ‘Broken Branches’ is also about family relationships and what happens to them when there's loss, so we were very excited to put them together,” said Merson.

MJFF also is putting together film and live music, albeit not in Rockland, this year. It will show its first silent film, dark comedy “Jewish Luck” (1925, USSR), with live piano accompaniment by Carolyn Swartz. The fest’s finale will be a screening of “The Mamboniks” (2018, USA), which reveals how Jewish and Latin cultures met on the dance floor at a time when America was racially segregated and anti-Semitism was commonplace. A reception with Primo Cubana follows.

And there’s also a blues film and performance — no surprise, as North Atlantic Blues Festival co-founder and –producer Jamie Isaacson has been on the MJFF board for years. The film, “Satan and Adam” (2018, USA), will be screened Thursday, March 14, at 6 p.m. in the PMA Café, followed by a performance by The Old Blues Kats.

“This film is a treat for all music and blues enthusiasts,” said Isaacson by email, “an example of the many Jewish and blues relationships.”

And there’s jazz – another film on the MJFF schedule is “It Must Schwing” (2018, Germany) about German Jewish emigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf, who founded the Blue Note record label.

Every year, the MJFF strives to program a variety of features and shorts, narrative and documentary. Merson said there is never a question of finding enough films to choose from — the real challenge is picking the best out of a dauntingly large selection.

“We have so many great films about just about anything that people might be interested in, and it's not so far to our other locations,” said Merson. “So I just urge people to take a look at the schedule and see what, what they might be interested in!”

Those interested in seeing the Rockland showings can get tickets in advance via brownpapertickets.com. It’s linked to the festival website, mjff.org, which also has the complete schedule and descriptions of all this year’s films and events. Tickets are $10, $8 for students/senior citizens, in advance; and $12/$10 at the door, as available. All three films are screened with English subtitles.

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