The Jewish Film Festival of Dallas, which on the night of Sept. 4 will enter its 22nd season, routinely offers an engrossing, introspective look at Jewish identity and culture, with a clever, sometimes spellbinding mix of feature films and documentaries.
But these days, it's so much more.
Dallas is lucky to have the Asian Film Festival, the USA Film Festival, the Dallas International Film Festival and the Dallas Video Festival, all of which offer inviting detours along the perilous cinematic highway. That's perilous, as in bad.
In an age when mainstream movies are routinely on the order of such dreck as The Happytime Murders and Mile 22, festivals offer relief for the cinematically weary.
So, for those seeking an escape from the multiplex dog days, the films listed below are worth checking out. All films in the 2018 Jewish Film Festival of Dallas are screened at The Studio Movie Grill Spring Valley, at 13933 N. Central Expressway in Dallas.
The Testament. Sept. 4, 7 p.m.
A Holocaust historian scrambles to stop the desecration of a mass grave in Austria. His determination to uncover testimonies from Holocaust survivors leads him, however unexpectedly, to a surprising source — his own reluctant mother.
Talk back:: Dr. David Patterson, Hillel A. Feinberg Chair in Holocaust Studies from the Ackerman Center at UT Dallas.
The Cakemaker, Sept. 5, 7 p.m.
Cakes, of all things, have been in the news recently. In June, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake to celebrate the marriage of a same-sex couple because of a religious objection. One of the festival's best this year is The Cakemaker, which explores the unlikely bond between Tomas, a gay German cake baker, and Anat, the Jerusaem-based widow of the man they both loved.
Talk Back: Rabbi Adam Roffman, Congregation Shearith Israel.
Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me
Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me, Sept. 8, 9:15 p.m.
This bio-pic examines the complex life of a complex man who reached out for the American dream in an era of intense prejudice. Sammy Davis Jr. was the first African-American entertainer to openly embrace Judaism. As he once famously said: "I'm Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman. When I move into a neighborhood, people start running in four directions at the same time."
Talk Back: Beri Schwitzer, Director Congregational Learning, Congregation Beth Torah.
GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II
GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II, Sept. 12, 1 p.m.
The Jewish Film Festival of Dallas has long been a forum for documentary filmmaking. This doc tells the story of the 550,000 Jewish American men and women who fought in World War II. Those featured include Hollywood directors and writers Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Fantastic personal stories.
Bye Bye Germany
Bye Bye Germany, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.
The post-war relationship between Jews and the beaten Germany of Adolf Hitler was the subject of Michael Bergmann's debut novel, The Traveling Salesman. The book and the film that followed offer surprising insight into why 4,000 Jews remained in Germany, even after the Holocaust.
Shelter, Sept. 15, 9:15 p.m.
This is the festival's best contemporary film. If you want a story about real issues and real people, all you need to say are two words from a Rolling Stones song title: "Gimme Shelter."
Much of what makes Shelter a memorable keeper are knockout performances by its two lead actors, or rather actresses, Neta Riskin and Golshifteh Farahani. At a time when movies so need to champion strong performances by strong women, Riskin and Farahani deliver. Were I asked to name the best actress of the 2018 Jewish Film Festival of Dallas, for me it would be Farahani, with Riskin a close second. Shelter is, in so many ways, a testament to love, and how love can and does transcend ethnic and religious differences.
Shelter follows the frightening path of Mossad agent Naomi, who accepts a mission at a safe house in Germany. She's assigned to protect Mona, a Lebanese informant who provides the added twist of recovering from a painful plastic surgery, designed to mask her identity, lest she be captured and killed by Hezbollah. A fragile bond develops amid the backdrop of an espionage thriller. Think Homeland meets Nip/Tuck.
Repeat screening of GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II. Sept. 16, 1:30 p.m.
Talk Back: Dr. Sara Abosch Jacobson, Chief Education, Programs & Exhibits Officer, Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education & Tolerance.
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel. Sept. 17, 7 p.m.
One of baseball's greatest all-time pitchers, Sandy Koufax, was Jewish. So was Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg. Two of the best ever. Heading Home directs its cameras not at superstars but at the characters who made up Israel's beloved national baseball team, which championed the role of underdog in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. When the tournament began, Israel was ranked 41st in the world. Even so, Team Israel ended up whipping such baseball juggernauts as South Korea and Cuba. Yes, even Cuba.
Talk Back: Omer Chechek-Katz, Consul, Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest.
The Body Collector
The Body Collector. Sept. 20, 7 p.m.
True stories have long been at the heart of the Jewish Film Festival of Dallas. The Body Collector maintains the tradition. It's the true story of how investigative journalist Hans Knoop uncovered the truth behind multimillionaire art collector Pieter Menten, who, it turns out, was a Nazi war criminal. The Body Collector remains the highest-rated television series in the history of the Netherlands.
The 90 Minute War
The 90 Minute War. Sept. 22, 9:15 p.m.
This tongue-in-cheek satire follows an unconventional path: Israel and the Palestinian authority agree to a peace plan — in the form of a winner-take-all soccer match. The 90-minute match will decide who gets to stay and who has to leave. Never has the word "GOAL!" taken on so much significance.
Repeat screening of Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me, Sept. 26, 1 p.m.
The Last Suit
The Last Suit, Sept. 27, 7 p.m.
The festival finale offers a feature film about 88-year-old Abraham Bursztein, who, like many folks his age, wants no part of assisted living. But this guy's got a whole different retirement plan: A trip to Poland to search for the friend who nursed him back to life after he almost lost it all in Auschwitz.
Talk Back: Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth; Leah and Paul Lewis Chair in Holocaust Studies, Ackerman Center at UT Dallas.