The 2016 Miami Jewish Film Festival celebrates the Israeli new wave

Natalie Portman stars in and directs ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ one of the movies screening at the 2016 Miami Jewish Film Festival.
Natalie Portman stars in and directs ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ one of the movies screening at the 2016 Miami Jewish Film Festival. VOLTAGE PICTURES

Last summer, Igor Shteyrenberg visited Jerusalem for the first time. The 31-year-old son of Russian Jewish parents was born in Ukraine, raised in Miami and attended the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California.

But until he received an invitation to attend the 2015 Jerusalem Film Festival, Shteyrenberg hadn’t set foot in Israel.

“I spent three weeks there and traveled throughout the country,” he says of the trip. “I met a lot of filmmakers and was inspired by their stories. I learned how difficult it is to make a film there, because the sources for financing are so limited. That’s what helps them craft their stories and sharpen them: The difficulty brings out the best in them.”

The lineup for the 19th Miami Jewish Film Festival, which runs Jan. 14-28, is in part a reflection of Shteyrenberg’s journey. Among the 80 feature-length and short films being shown at 10 venues around the city are movies that Shteyrenberg describes as part of a “new wave of Israeli cinema,” including Jeruzalem, Israel’s first-ever supernatural horror movie, about demonic possession; Rock in the Red Zone, a documentary about the music scene in war-torn Sderot directed by Laura Bialis, who met her husband while making the movie; Tikkun, writer-director Avishai Sivan’s visually striking tale of a man who is changed by a near-death experience, shot in black and white; and The Man in the Wall, a thriller about a woman’s search for her missing husband set entirely inside a Tel Aviv apartment, with echoes of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.

There are also movies made by established artists, including:

▪  Remember, from director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica), about two elderly men (Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau) trying to track down the Auschwitz commander who murdered their families;

▪  A Tale of Love and Darkness, the directorial debut of actress Natalie Portman, who also stars as the mother of the celebrated author Amos Oz;

▪  Baba Joon, a Persian-language drama about the generational clash within an Iranian family, which was Israel’s official submission to the 2015 Academy Awards;

▪  Our Boys, an exploration of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens in 2014 directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Richard Trank (The Long Way Home), who will also host a Q&A session;

▪  One More Time, starring Christopher Walken as a washed-up lounge singer and Amber Heard as his aspiring rock-star daughter.

The ambitious program includes titles from 20 countries, such as Bulgaria (Bulgarian Rhapsody), Argentina (Glories of Tango), Germany (To Life!) and the U.S. (the foodie documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine). As a direct result of his visit to Israel, Shteyrenberg programmed a special side bar, “30 Years of Ma’aleh Film School,” which will screen a collection of works made by graduates of the renowned institution, located in Jerusalem. For the first time, this year’s festival will host a Short Film Competition, comprised of submissions and curated titles, with the winner receiving a U.S. release via distributor Film Movement.

Neta Ariel, who has served as director of the Ma’aleh Film School for 20 years, says she has seen an evolution in the tastes and sensibilities of her students — bolder themes and subject matter — reflected in the movies they make and the films being screened at the festival.

“Because Ma’aleh has a Jewish agenda, many of the films made by our students deal with Jewish identity,” she says via e-mail. “In recent years, students are addressing a wider range of issues: Human rights, women’s rights, family and social issues, not just Jewish ideas. They are also using film not just to reflect the reality of their lives, but to influence and change the world around them. They are far more sophisticated and aware of what is happening all around the world. They are braver, bringing whatever they want to the screen, displaying far more confidence in the use of film as a tool. They are also far less concerned about criticism and accept this as a means for them to grow.”

Brothers Doron and Yoav Paz, who wrote and directed Jeruzalem, also believe there is something generational happening in recent Israeli cinema.

Jeruzalem is a very unusual film for the Israeli film industry, because there have only been a few genre films made in the last few years,” the brothers say via e-mail. “It’s a great thing to see something other than arthouse movies getting made. There is a new generation of young filmmakers who were influenced by Spielberg and not just Godard and European cinema. These are directors who speak in a global language, not just a local one. We are proud to be a part of this new wave.”

Growing the base

This is Shteyrenberg’s third time at the reins of the 19-year-old festival, which is presented by the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Fueled by year-round screenings and an aggressive campaign targeting younger movie buffs (a free Miami Jewish Film Society “Millennial Membership” is available to anyone aged 21-35), attendance has grown during Shteyrenberg’s stewardship from an estimated 4,000 in 2013 to more than 20,000 in 2015. That makes it the third-biggest Jewish film festival in the world, after Atlanta (with an estimated attendance of 37,000 last year) and San Francisco (34,000).

Last year, the festival also launched an online platform, www.mjff.muvies.com, making many of the movies screened at the event available for rent or sale. There were monthly sneak previews of upcoming mainstream films (Ex Machina, The Night Before, Bridge of Spies) and retrospective series (including the works of Woody Allen and Billy Wilder) held year-round, which further grew the membership base.

“We have come a long way in a short time,” Shteyrenberg says. “Part of that has to do with the movies we’ve been showing, and part of it is the connection we have developed with our audience. We want to be a platform that people can use for discovery. We are not a lifestyle event; we are not about parties for the sake of parties. We want to be a destination event. And we want to be as accessible as possible. I come from a working-class family, where it wasn’t always possible to attend these kinds of events. That’s why it is so important for me to share the festival.”

A free outdoor screening of Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs will be held during the festival on Jan. 16 at the Miami Beach SoundScape, preceded by a performance of John Williams’ Star Wars score by the New World Symphony Brass Quintet. Other free events include the North American premiere of the International Remembrance Day Project, a collection of 21 short animated films commemorating fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorism (8:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach); the Ma’aleh Film School showcase (7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at Temple Beth Sholom); and the Short Film Competition program (6 p.m. Jan. 21 at Temple Beth Sholom).

Mark Kravitz, chairman of the festival, says Shteyrenberg’s efforts to expand the audience are paying off.

“We’re looking to be a place where anyone can go and learn about Israeli culture, not just Jewish people” he says. “People used to associate us with Holocaust movies, but Igor has broadened the scope of the festival. Before, he was the consummate Jewish film festival professional. Now, after going to Israel, he’s Israel-savvy too. He has a serious understanding of the festival and its purpose.”

But although Shteyrenberg acknowledges a big part of the festival’s mission is to educate, his primary objective — what most animates him when he’s talking about the festival – is celebrating the art of filmmaking.

Tikkun is one of the most lauded Israeli films in years,” he says. “It’s a story about a crisis of faith and finding your identity. But you don’t have to be an Orthodox Jew to appreciate the story. You just need to be a lover of cinema. It’s a sucker-punch to the heart, a truly transcendent experience that almost plays out like a Buñuelian drama. It opens up the possibilities of what cinema can be, and you celebrate it for its aesthetics, not for what country it’s from.”

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald

If you go

What: The 2016 Miami Jewish Film Festival

When: Jan. 14-28

Where: 10 venues around Miami, including the Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Shores, Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, the Bill Cosford Cinema, Temple Beth Am, Temple Beth Sholom and Regal South Beach

Cost: General admission tickets for most screenings are $13 adults, $11 seniors and students.

Info and complete festival lineup: www.miamijewishfilmfestival.com or call 305-573-7304.