When the films that comprise the 38th annual Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival were scheduled, the programmers couldn't have known that the event would follow so closely after a tragedy like the shooting deaths at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Themes did emerge that reflected the divisiveness that has helped to fuel such violence, according to executive artistic director Olivia Antsis.
"Artists respond to what's going on in their world and their society," Antsis said. "Themes of redemption, personal and collective accountability, and preserving the truth, no matter the cost, arise in so many of our films this season."
The notion of bridging differences is echoed throughout this year's lineup, the first since the festival announced a change in its mission from the diverse programming of the Gershman Y to focus exclusively on film programming. Whether serious or lighthearted, comic or tragic, many of the festival's highlights focus on ideas that, in Antsis' words, "bring people together instead of maintaining these divides that are tearing us apart." Here are a few standout films featuring the harmony that can be achieved by strange bedfellows:
This year's opening night film, The Interpreter, illustrates that notion in dramatic form. Slovakia's entry for the 2019 best foreign language film Oscar, is a road movie bringing together an elderly Slovakian-Jewish translator (played by Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel) and the son of an SS officer who may have been responsible for the execution of the translator's parents. (Saturday, Nov. 3, 7:30 p.m., Prince Theater)
A less momentous friendship forms in the romantic comedy Song of Back and Neck, directed by and starring Paul Lieberstein (Toby in The Office). Lieberstein plays Fred, a hapless paralegal suffering from back pain who finds an unexpected chemistry with a client looking for a divorce lawyer at his father's firm. "That's a very Jewish comic trope," Antsis says with a laugh. "Connecting over our ailments." (Thursday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m., Ritz East)
The blues has always been a torch passed down from one generation to the next, but Satan and Adam captures one of the strangest handoffs in that long and circuitous history. The film depicts the collaboration between bluesman Sterling "Mister Satan" Magee and harmonica player Adam Gussow, who busked on the sidewalks of Harlem during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Far from your average street musicians, the two evolved an innovative and influential approach to the blues that caught the ears of superstars like U2 and Bo Diddley. Their 20-year partnership was disrupted when Mister Satan disappeared, a mystery traced by this compelling documentary. (Wednesday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m., Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts)
Not only people but cultures also make for unlikely pairings. The documentary Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema tells the little-known story of the Indian Jewish community and its pivotal role in the country's immensely popular film industry. At the dawn of India's famously colorful and musical cinema, Hindu and Islamic women were forbidden from performing on screen, so many of Bollywood's original female icons were Jewish — albeit with stage names that obscured that fact. (Monday, Nov. 12, 2 p.m., Gershman Y)
It's one thing for an entire industry to support such diversity; it's more unusual for that kind of cultural eclecticism to be embodied in a single person. Then again, Sammy Davis Jr. packed enough talent for several performers into one body, so why not several cultures? Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me tells the story of one of show biz's most revered entertainers, with such fellow multi-talents as Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal hailing Davis' gifts as a singer, actor, dancer, and civil rights activist. (Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2 p.m., National Museum of American Jewish History)
Another multi-hyphenate performer, Matthew Broderick costars with Geza Rohrig of Son of Saul in To Dust, a quirky, dark comedy about the struggle to come to terms with the death of a loved one. Broderick plays a community college biology professor engaged by a Hasidic widower to help explain the decomposition that his wife's body is going through — a curious concept taken to morbid extremes. (Thursday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m., Ritz East)
A Christmas party may seem like a particularly head-scratching way to wrap up a Jewish film festival, but it starts to make a bit more sense when you consider who's responsible for so many of the songs that provide the soundtrack for those festivities. Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas explores the story of the Jewish songwriters who penned many of the season's most beloved carols, including Irving Berlin, Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, and Mel Tormé. In a very Jewish twist on the holiday party, the screening will be followed by a Christmas-themed Chinese buffet — ugly sweaters encouraged. "For anybody who has ever secretly loved Christmas and wanted to be part of the celebration," Antsis says, "this is the ultimate dream program."