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Jewish Film Festival puts spotlight on documentaries

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Henry David, Sasson Gabai and Sarah Adler star in 'Restoration,' which tells the story of an elderly man who restores antiques.

The Austin Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a diverse selection of 24 films from seven countries. The festival focuses more on documentaries this year than in the past, with "David Amram: The First 80 Years" serving as the opening night film on Saturday.

"We don't have one defining sensibility except for films that we hope will touch our audiences' hearts," AJFF co-director David Goldblatt said. "This year we have more documentaries than usual. That was not by design but just seemed to emerge naturally."

Director Lawrence Kraman's documentary details the life and career of the composer and French horn player who was integral in broadening the appeal of world music. Amram, a contemporary and collaborator of Beat icon Jack Kerouac, has performed with artists ranging from Charlie Parker to Willie Nelson and composed the score for "Splendor in the Grass" and "The Manchurian Candidate."

Amram was scheduled to perform a live concert Thursday night at Congregation Agudas Achim on the Dell Jewish Community Campus to kick off the festival that features more than two dozen screenings from Saturday through March 30.

"I had seen David play a Shabbat (Saturday) morning service at the Kerrville Folk Festival a number of years ago," Goldblatt said. "He played a nigun (wordless melody) on a double-reed flute, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. After we saw the film about David's life and realized that we could have him perform as well as show the film, we thought it represented well the breadth of art which we pursue every year."

The documentary "Crime After Crime," which won the National Board of Review's Freedom of Expression Award in 2011, tells the amazing and heartwarming story of Debbie Peagler, a survivor of domestic abuse who had to wage a five-year legal battle to fight a wrongful conviction that led to her spending 25 years behind bars. Filmmaker Yoav Ptash will participate in a Q&A session after a 7 p.m. screening Thursday.

"We look for films that can extend our reach within and outside of the Jewish community," Goldblatt said. "We saw a screening of ‘Crime After Crime' at the Violet Crown last year and met the filmmaker and were totally blown away. We hope to bring this film to a wider audience. ... The film is shocking, heartbreaking and deeply touching."

Winner of the World Cinema Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, "Restoration" screens at 7 p.m. Sunday and has a free screening at noon Monday. Yossi Madmoni's feature directorial debut stars award-winning actor Sasson Gabai ("The Band's Visit") as an elderly man who has a workshop restoring antiques.

Films with Austin ties include "Hamsa: The Pointed Question," Jewish Community Association of Austin staff member Wendy Corn's lighthearted short film that investigates the proper direction (up or down?) for the Jewish/Arab palm-shaped symbol. The short film, "Life Is Like a Glass of Tea," about a rabbi with a long-guarded secret who is preparing for death, stars recently deceased Austin actor Robert Brody.

The festival will break down its screenings next week into several themes. Sisterhood Day on Monday showcases "Bride Flight," a generation-spanning narrative that interweaves the story of three women who meet aboard KLM's 1953 immigration flight to New Zealand, and 2011 Israeli Film Academy nominee, "My Lovely Sister." Based on a Moroccan Jewish folk tale, "My Lovely Sister" is a story of sibling rivalry in a North African Jewish family.

Polish Heritage Night on Wednesday features "Joanna," prolific director Feliks Falk's story of a Polish woman who hides a Jewish child only to have her secret uncovered by a German officer, and "Little Rose," an intriguing look at a love triangle involving a beautiful young woman, a Polish policeman and an older Jewish intellectual.

Those familiar with the festival's history might recognize a few of the titles at this year's festival. "Seltzer Work" and "The Band's Visit" have screened at previous iterations of the AJFF and return this year as part of the Best of the Fest series. Free Best of the Fest screenings will be held at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday. In addition to the Best of the Fest films, the AJFF will also offer a dozen free screenings at noon each weekday next week at the Regal Arbor.

The AJFF broadens its offerings this year with the programming of "Rabies." The first horror film to come out of Israel, "Rabies" screened at Fantastic Fest last year in Austin. The bloody and darkly comic film from writers and directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado follows a trip into the woods that takes a severely gruesome turn.

After the screening of "Rabies" at Fantastic Fest, James Marsh of TwitchFilm.net called the film one of his favorites of 2011, describing it as "a horror film that plays out both as a brutal indictment of the latent rage within humanity and an extreme absurdist farce that sees a single potentially life-threatening situation quickly escalate into a rampaging bloodbath devoid of justifiable motive or reason."

Senior Day closes the festival on March 30, with a series of free screenings that include three short films preceding the documentary "Now I'm Free," director Gadi Kviatek's portrait of an Israeli theater group for seniors that encourages female emigrants from Middle Eastern countries to find their voices after decades of oppression.

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986