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More sweetness than sadness
Celebrate life at the Jewish Film Festival

The thing that you need to know about Jewish film festivals is that they’re not all about the Holocaust.

True, the mass murder of six million Jewish people under Hitler’s evil hand has given rise to a seemingly endless slew of acclaimed yet heartrending films: Au Revoir Les Enfants, Schindler’s List and last year’s Sarah’s Key only scratch the surface. It’s been less than a century since WWII, and while the world’s Holocaust survivors reach the end of their blessedly long lives, new stories of tragedy and bravery continue to emerge.

But the Jewish story is much bigger than the 20th-century horror of Eastern Europe, and the films it inspires reach beyond its lens. Global themes of identity, celebration and meddlesome in–laws work their way into the canon and can be pondered at the Savannah Jewish Film Festival, taking place Jan. 24–Feb. 2 at the Jewish Educational Alliance.

“One of the wonderful aspects is that we’re showing all independent films,” says JEA Director of Programming Jennifer Rich. “We’re touching on experiences of people from all over the world, and from a cultural perspective, I think there’s a lot to enjoy and learn whether you’re Jewish or not.”

Taking its cue from the huge Jewish film festivals of San Francisco and Washington D.C. as well as smaller ones in less likely outposts of American Jewry, the Savannah festival began in 2003 with a push of community support. It quickly became the way to honor longtime Savannah Jewish Federation philanthropists and avid film buffs Joan and Murray Gefen, who died in a car accident in 2001. The festival that bears their name is a joint project of the JEA and the Federation.

“Its founders figured if Montgomery, Alabama can have a Jewish film festival, then why not Savannah?” entreats Rich.

She and her multi–generational committee pared down hundreds of films screened at other Jewish film festivals to arrive at eight that run the gamut: There’s Live and Become, the touching chronicle of a Christian Ethiopian boy who escapes a refugee camp in Sudan by pretending to be Jewish, and Salsa Tel Aviv, a rom–com about the unlikely connection between an Israeli scientist and Mexican salsa dancer.

The barriers between Islam and Judaism in Brooklyn are explored through the eyes of an 11 year–old in David (the screening will be followed by a Q&A with SCAD film professor Michael Hofstein.) Family life and its accompanying strife get uplifting treatment in both A Wonderful Day (Yom Nifla) and the Argentinian film My First Wedding (Mi Primera Boda.)

And while the Holocaust is the setting for Nicky’s Family and Violins in Wartime (which will be followed by a string performance by Dr. Larisha Elisha,) these films focus on positive outcomes in the face of disaster.

“Being in the younger age range, I really felt like I wanted to look at movies that were inspiring, interesting and funny,” says Rich. “Even if they have a message, we chose films that delivered it an enjoyable way rather than in a depressing way.”

Perhaps the most inclusive example that encompasses both the trials and joys of Jewish life is contained in award–winning director Roberta Grossman’s film Hava Nagila (The Movie), closing the festival on Feb. 2. A light–hearted look into how a wordless Jewish prayer has been lyricized, embraced and elevated by popular global culture, Hava Nagila is on the list for practically every Jewish film festival for 2013.

Alternating celebrity interviews — some Jewish (Leonard Nimoy, Regina Spektor), some not (Connie Francis, Harry Belafonte) — with wacky YouTube clips from Thailand to Russia to Texas, the film follows the “Hava Nagila” phenomenon from its origins in 18th-century Ukraine to the American suburbs to the global jukebox.

“It’s a song with an incredible life,” mused Grossman in a phone interview last week. “It’s had this ability to travel and transcend borders; when it entered pop culture in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was used as a nod, a wink, a signature of something Jewish. Now I’m not so sure.”

Grossman explains that the popularity of the song among American Jews came as a positive response to the devastating loss of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel but expanded its cultural and political implications to include the non–Jewish world: Elvis, Dick Dale, Chubby Checker and Glen Campbell recorded it, and Lena Horne sang a version that became a rallying anthem for the Civil Rights movement.

Though Hava Nagila has been touted as a salve for more serious Jewish film festival fare, Grossman is far from a superficial filmmaker. She built her directorial career on the subject matter of social justice and history, and ironically, her last film was Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, a documentary about the 22 year–old heroine who parachuted into Nazi–occupied Hungary and was executed.

Grossman’s next two projects are also Holocaust–related: She’s working with Nancy Spielberg (Steven’s sister) on a film about the creation of the Israeli Air Force and has plans for another about the secret archives of the Warsaw Ghetto.

“I thought of Hava Nagila as a psychic and emotional palette cleanser between projects,” she said wryly.

Still, she’s not surprised that her film, like the song it apotheosizes, has an appeal beyond traditional Jewish life.

“‘Hava Nagila’ is a life–affirming song, and the ritual of using it is life–affirming. For everyone.”

Savannah Jewish Film Festival

When: Jan. 24–Feb. 2 (see website for schedule]

Where: JEA, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $10 per film/$8 JEA members; full festival passes available