Surprising stories at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival

A film on Sydney Lumet's life story and legacy will screen on November 10. (Image courtesy of PJFF)

Could you lift three times your own body weight — before your Bat Mitzvah? The 36th annual Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival (PJFF) has no shortage of brave and surprising narratives like that of New Jersey’s Naomi Kutin, an Orthodox Jewish girl who became a champion powerlifter.

This year, the Gershman Y’s PJFF, running November 5-19, is screening 33 films (16 feature documentaries) from 12 countries, including stories with roots in the United States, Argentina, Italy, Germany, Ethiopia, Poland, France, and Hungary. Screenings (including a plethora of Philadelphia premieres and classic favorites), panels, receptions, a master class, and events pairing film and food will come to 10 venues in Center City, Old City, University City, and the Philly suburbs.

Sitting shiva, going home, and The Last Laugh

Things get started on Saturday, November 5 with the Philadelphia premiere of Asaph Polonsky’s Ophir-nominated One Week and a Day at the Kimmel, a “dark comedy” about parents sitting shiva for their 25-year-old son, and “mourning however they see fit.”

The Festival touts two Spotlight films. The first, the Philadelphia premiere of Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet, features movie clips and an intimate, never-before-seen 2008 interview with the director of Serpico, 12 Angry Men, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and over 40 other films. It’s coming up on November 10 at the Gershman Y. The second Spotlight event, also at the Gershman Y, is happening November 16. Argentinian writer-director Daniel Burman’s The Tenth Man was nominated for Best International Narrative Feature at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and gets its Philly premiere with PJFF: a New York City economist rediscovers his Argentinian-Jewish roots in Buenos Aries.

The Festival’s Centerpiece Film will be on Saturday, November 12 at the Gershman Y. The Last Laugh is “a boldly humorous documentary” exploring “when, if ever, are jokes about the Holocaust funny” without minimizing the horrors. Perspectives from figures like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and Louis C.K. meet those of Holocaust survivors.  Director Ferne Pearlstein will be on hand for the reception afterwards.

Powerful youngsters

The next day at the same venue, experience Naomi Kutin’s story with director Jessie Auritt’s feature film debut, Supergirl. Filmed over the course of three years, beginning when Kutin was 11, the movie follows the record-breaking powerlifter through the challenges of school, bullying, health, and balancing religious observance with her passion for the sport, all while preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Auritt will be there to provide a personal introduction to the film.

The Supergirl screening is paired with another story of local interest featuring an extraordinary youngster. Bar Mitzvah Project comes from Benji Elkins of Bala Cynwyd, who interviewed Dr. George Horner, a survivor of three Nazi concentration camps. He lost his dream of becoming a professional pianist when his back was broken, but in Elkins’s short documentary, Horner performs a piece he composed from inside Terezin camp.  

The 2016 Festival will close with Women in Shorts, a series of four short Israeli films by or about women, all getting their Philly premieres, with settings ranging from a Haifa salon serving Arab and Jewish women to an Israeli contemporary art museum with an all-female unit of security guards.

The 36th annual Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival is coming up at venues throughout the Philadelphia area from November 5-19. Here’s the full line-up

Above: Naomi Kutin of Supergirl. (Image courtesy of PJFF)