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Boston Jewish Film Festival Showcases Jewish Stories From Around the World

December 6, 2019 | By Xandie Kuenning

From Nov. 6-17, the 31st annual Boston Jewish Film Festival took place in various locations around Boston, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Brattle Theatre, and Coolidge Corner Theater. Over the course of the festival, 29 feature films and two TV series were shown, and the ninth annual Freshflix Short Film Competition took place.

Still From My Polish Honeymoon

Courtesy of Menemsha Films and Le Pacte

In the French comedy My Polish Honeymoon, Anna (Judith Chemla) and Adam (Arthur Igual), a young Parisian couple with Polish-Jewish origins, travel to Poland for the first time to attend a memorial commemorating the Jewish community Adam’s grandfather belonged to, which was destroyed 75 years prior. While Adam sees this as an excuse to spend some quality time with his wife, Anna is overly anxious — to the point of seeming neurotic — about discovering more about her own family’s history, which was always a mystery. 

Examining important topics such as personal identity and racism, the film has the potential to be great. However, director Élise Otzenberger’s choice to portray Anna’s obsession with Poland in such an over-the-top fashion made most of the situational humor come across as painfully awkward. It also made it hard to root for her, even when her motivations for going to Poland — to finally learn about her family history, something many descendants of Holocaust survivors struggle with — are made clear.

In contrast, Fig Tree, directed by Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian, is a beautifully tragic coming-of-age romance set in 1989 during the Ethiopian Civil War. The film follows 16-year-old Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), an Ethiopian-Jew whose brother and grandmother are planning to flee to Israel, where Mina’s mother is working. Mina cannot bear to leave behind her Christian boyfriend Eli (Yohanes Muse), who hides in a fig tree to avoid being drafted as a child soldier, and so she drafts a plan that would allow all of them to safely flee to Israel. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that Mina will not be able to escape the hell she is living in.

Based in part on Davidian’s own memories of growing up in wartorn Ethiopia, which she left at age 11, the film does not shy away from portraying the horrors of war. In one heartbreaking scene, Mina and Eli find a legless soldier (Tilahune Asagere) trying to commit suicide. Once he gains his strength back, he attempts to crawl away — hiding in the shadows, Mina watches as he collapses in the street, and the people around him carry on as if nothing has happened. 

Still from Fig Tree

Courtesy of Menemsha Films

The film’s strengths lie in Asmamawe’s emotional performance as Mina, as well as the film’s sound editing. Playing on natural sound, such as crickets chirping during the night, the film puts the audience directly into the scene. Additionally, the score is critical for ramping up the tension as the deadline to leave for Israel rapidly approaches. A wonderful addition to Jewish film canon, Fig Tree will leave you in deep thought for hours after the credits roll. 

In addition to the fictional films, a number of documentaries were also screened, including the New England premiere of From Slavery to Freedom. Directed by Arkady Kogan, the film tells the history of Natan Sharansky, a Soviet “Refusenik” who was arrested on charges of spying for the United States, treason, and anti-Soviet agitation, and his wife Avital, who traveled the world in order to fight for her husband’s freedom. In the Soviet Union, a Refusenik was an unofficial term for individuals who were denied permission to emigrate — often Soviet Jews hoping to travel to Israel. 

Early on in the film, it becomes clear this was a made-for-TV sort of film — it was broadcast on Channel 9 in Israel. Much of the editing was choppy in what seemed to be an attempt to dramatize the events and the filming itself was often shaky. The one saving grace was Kogan’s choice to animate certain parts of the story, such as Natan and Avital’s illegal, traditional Jewish wedding. While the film covered a fascinating piece of Jewish history, its style made it hard to watch. 

At this year’s festival, audiences were able to enjoy everything from comedies to dramas to documentaries, all while learning about the experience of Jews from all parts of the globe. While some films were more misses than hits, all brought something to the table through the stories they told.