San Diego International Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Feb. 13-23, 2020 will show 35 films in four different venues: Reading Cinemas Town Square in Clairemont, Garfield Theatre at Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in Balboa Park, and La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.
There’s a lot to choose from, with dramas, comedies and documentaries about the arts, history, sports, family conflicts, and Israeli-Palestinian relations.
To simplify things, here are my five picks for pictures you’ll be glad to say you’ve seen.
1) “Crescendo” (Germany 2019, in German and English with English subtitles): This mix of gorgeous music and high drama is about what happens when a famous conductor becomes maestro of an Israeli-Palestinian youth orchestra.
The challenges of creating harmony with teens who consider each other sworn enemies are greater than he imagined, and the story is loosely based on Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019. (Clairemont, Feb. 16, 1:30 p.m.; Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m.)
2) “Last Stop Coney Island: The Life & Photography of Harold Feinstein” (UK 2018): Harold Feinstein (1931-2015) was one of the great black-and-white photographers in the 1940s and ’50s, specializing in photos of the multi-ethnic community of Coney Island, where he was born.
His career lasted 60 years, and though he is not so well-known today, this film may help remedy that.
MOPA’s executive director Deborah Klochko will introduce the MOPA screening and invite attendees to view selected Feinstein photos from the museum’s collection. (MOPA, Feb. 16, 7:15 p.m., with intro at 6:15 p.m.; Clairemont, Feb. 18, 4:30 p.m.)
3) “The Samuel Project” (USA 2018): A prize-winner in Los Angeles and Honolulu Film Festivals, this is a “dramedy” about Eli, a high-school senior, who convinces his grandfather, Samuel, a taciturn Holocaust survivor, to be the subject of an animated film project for school. Eli is played by Ryan Ochoa, a Disney-TV star born and raised in San Diego; school scenes were filmed at San Diego Jewish Academy in Carmel Valley. Samuel is Hal Linden, the actor perhaps best known as TV’s “Barney Miller.” (Clairemont, Feb. 18, 1:30 p.m.; Feb. 19, 7 p.m.) Free Teen Screen: Clairemont, Feb. 19, 6-9 p.m., including pizza and Q&A with Ryan Ochoa. RSVP by Feb. 14 to Jason Lobenstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (858) 362-1331.
4) “The Spy Behind Home Plate” (USA 2019): Moe Berg (1902-1972) was an Ivy League-educated Major League ballplayer who spoke many languages and was called “the brainiest man in baseball.” He was also a spy for the OSS (precursor of the CIA), going behind the lines in Europe during WWII and even taking clandestine photos of Tokyo when he went to Japan with an all-star baseball team in 1934.
This is not the only recent film about Berg. “The Catcher Was a Spy,” based on a bestselling book by Nicholas Dawidoff, premiered at Sundance in 2018, starring Paul Rudd. But this is a full-out documentary, with rare footage and interviews assembled by filmmaker Aviva Kempner, an award-winner in 2001 for “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” her close-up of another Jewish ballplayer. Berg was a man of many secrets, and Kempner’s detailed reveal of his life will leave you talking about him. (Clairemont, Feb. 16, 12:15 p.m.; Feb. 17, 4 p.m.)
5) “There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv” (Israel 2019; Hebrew with English subtitles): Here’s another fascinating documentary, an unusual tale of a rabbi turned zookeeper. Max Shorenstein, aka “Rabbi Doolittle,” left his position as Chief Rabbi of Denmark in 1935 and traveled to Palestine to fulfill his dream of establishing a zoo there, bringing children closer to the natural world. He arrived in the emerging city of Tel Aviv with two bird-filled cages, and within three years managed to open a Zoo that was immediately popular with local residents. But as both zoo and city expanded, problems arose.
The story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, but it tells about someone who did make his dream come true. And it has lions and tigers and bears ... and elephants, too. (Clairemont, Feb. 16, 6:45 p.m.; Feb. 18, 3:45 p.m.; Feb. 20, 1:45 p.m.)
— There are 30 more films to consider for the 2020 San Diego International Jewish Film Festival. For the full program and tickets, call (858) 362-1348 or visit sdcjc.org/sdijff