The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which opens Thursday and runs for a week, is a labor of love for its director, Hilary Helstein, a filmmaker who directed the 2009 documentary "As Seen Through These Eyes."
"There's so much that goes into putting on a program like this," said Helstein. "L.A. is a tough place to compete, because there is so much competition with cultural events and film festivals. There is also a tremendous amount of competition in the Jewish community with cultural events that are happening at the Skirball or the Museum of Tolerance. So to be unique and have something new and different that has never been seen before is always a challenge for me."
Helstein travels to film festivals, attends the American Film Market and meets with distributors to find films, in addition to soliciting filmmakers for submissions and talking to directors of other major Jewish film festivals in such cities as Toronto and San Diego.
"We then make a decision of what is going to work best for an L.A. audience," said Helstein. "We have a different kind of moviegoing audience here than other cities that host Jewish film festivals. Though we have the second-largest Jewish population, it's not always a given that they will come because of the competition and the logistics of getting from point A to point B."
Now in its ninth year, the festival will screen 32 narrative features, documentaries and shorts at nine venues.
Thursday's opening-night gala, which honors Carl Reiner and pays tribute to the late Sid Caesar, is the inaugural event at the new Steve Tisch Cinema Center at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.
"Ten From Your Show of Shows," the 1973 compilation film of the best sketches from the landmark comedy-variety series starring Caesar, Reiner, Imogene Coca and Howard Morris, will be screened, and Reiner will be on hand to discuss his storied career with "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Phil Rosenthal.
After opening night, the majority of the screenings will take place at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Laemmle's Town Center in Encino
Helstein is particularly excited about 1913's "The Life of the Jews in Palestine," which screens Tuesday at the Town Center. The festival will be screening 25 minutes of the 80-minute silent that was shot at holy sites and agricultural communities.
"It's about the first and second wave of immigrants who left Eastern Europe and went to Israel," said Helstein. "The film was created as a travel piece and was shown at the 11th Zionist conference in Vienna and played at a number of other cities. On the eve of World War I, all copies vanished."
But in 1997 a negative was found in a vault in France. The Israel Film Archive-Jerusalem Cinematheque made a new digital copy to celebrate the film's centenary. "This marks the first time it has been show outside of Jerusalem," noted Helstein.
Other highlights of the festival include "The Sturgeon Queens," a documentary about the famed Russ & Daughters lox and herring emporium in New York; the romantic comedy "One Small Hitch"; the French-Israeli musical-comedy "Cupcake"; and "Transit," the official Philippine entry for the 2013 foreign-language Oscar, on the decision by the Israeli government to deport children of foreign workers.
Hannah Espia, who made her feature directorial debut with "Transit," will be on hand for the screening. "Transit," she said an email interview, is very personal to her.
"My family has a tour company specializing in Holy Land tours, so I worked there for a few years after graduating from film school," she said. "During one of my trips to Tel Aviv, I met a Filipino worker bringing his baby to the Philippines because of the deportation law. We also got to interview some Filipino workers when we were in Tel Aviv to shoot 'Transit.' It was really heartbreaking to hear their stories."
The festival concludes May 8 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks with "The Jewish Cardinal," a French drama about Jean-Marie Lustiger, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, who still maintained his Jewish identity even after converting to Catholicism and becoming a priest. The late Lustiger was appointed archbishop of Paris by the recently canonized Pope John Paul II.
"He is a total enigma and mystery," said director Ilan Duran Cohen. "You keep telling yourself, just choose a side — you can't be both. But when you watch the movie you somehow accept the fact that he was both."
The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival
When: Through May 8
Where: Various venues and times
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