For 26 years, the JFilm Festival has featured a curated lineup of Jewish documentaries, dramas, comedies, and everything in between that highlight the diversity of the Jewish experience around the world. This year’s films travel to Hungary, Israel, Ethiopia, Canada, Brazil, and more. Check out some highlights, which cover Sephardic Jews fighting for political representation, Ethiopian Jews struggling for legitimacy, and Hasidic women trying to become EMTs.
Thu., March 7
Directed by Elian Malka
By Alex Gordon
After his daughter is expelled from school on vague, questionable charges, Yakov Cohen (Shuli Rand) demands answers. They're not easy to come by. The first teacher directs him to another, who sends him to another, who leads him to the principal, a process which sees Cohen storming down the hallways with a growing group of wary teachers in tow. These are the kinetic, funny, charismatic opening scenes of The Unorthodox, an Israeli film directed by Elian Malka. That momentum never wavers.
It becomes subtly clear that Cohen's daughter was kicked out because of her Sephardic background in a majority Ashkenazi community. (The distinction is basically that Sephardic Jews descend from the Middle East and Northern Africa, whereas Ashkenazi Jews come from Europe. Put more simply, Sephardic Jews have darker skin.) From there, The Unorthodox follows Cohen and a group of fellow Sephardim as they work to establish their own political party. Most of the film is a re-telling of Cohen's tirade through the school writ a bit larger, charging through Jerusalem from office to office requesting and/or demanding political support as his cohorts struggle to keep pace.
Beyond the general charm of the performers and story based on true events, Malka succeeds with The Unorthodox by keeping the mission clear and simple. There's little excess in sentimentality here, which allows the story to shine on its own merit. JFilm Opening Night. 7 p.m. Southside Works Cinema, 425 Cinema Drive, South Side. $25-85. filmpittsburgh.com
Tue., March 12 and Wed., March 13
Directed by Paula Eiselt
By Hannah Lynn
In the Hasidic Jewish community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, the predominantly male, Orthodox Hatzalah responds to medical emergencies. Recognizing that many women don’t want their modesty violated by strange men, lawyer Rachel Freier attempts to start Ezras Nashim, an all-female EMS service. The documentary follows the tenacious Freier as she fights for Nashim’s right to exist, battling traditionalists who don’t think women should do such work, all while also upholding dated traditions, like not allowing single women to work as EMTs.
Director Paula Eiselt has spoken about the difficulties in getting the film made because no one wanted to fund a movie about Orthodoxy that wasn’t critical of how it “oppresses women.” The female subjects are devoutly, proudly religious, while also wanting the right to provide EMS services. Freier makes it clear that she’s not a feminist, but acknowledges she’s able to do what she does because of feminism. “You can’t, in one sentence, narrow me down to a few specific words,” she says. 7 p.m. Tue., March 12. Jewish Community center, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. $6-12. filmpittsburgh.org and 5:30 p.m. Wed., March 13. Southside Works Cinema, 425 Cinema Drive, South Side. $6-12. filmpittsburgh.org
Fri., March 15
Directed by Ryan S. Porush
By Hannah Lynn
A common debate that has sprung up along with the rising threat of white nationalism is whether or not Jewish people are white. The question itself is already misguided, implying that all Jews have white skin. The Passengers tells the plight of the Jewish population in Ethiopia, which, at the time of the documentary, numbered around 9,000. They want to immigrate to what they feel is their true home but are denied by a government that doesn’t see them as real Jews, presumably because of their skin color.
The Passengers follows two young men, Demoz and Gezi, as they travel to the U.S. to make a case to various Jewish organizations, hoping to spread awareness about their struggles. The film focuses mainly on Demoz and Gezi’s journey but fails to address their plight to the fullest extent. It’s complicated to support their move to Israel, while also having mixed feelings about Israel in the first place. While it falls short in some areas, it still provides an interesting look into a rarely heard community. 5:30 p.m. Southside Works Cinema, 425 Cinema Drive, South Side. $6-12. filmpittsburgh.com