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The Rochester Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 15th year with one of its largest festivals.

The 15th Annual JCC Rochester Jewish Film Festival 

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There's a frequent misperception that film festivals are intended exclusively for the audience reflected in their titles: Festivals that spotlight women filmmakers are just for women; gay films are meant solely for the LGBT community; Jewish films are only for Semitic audiences; and on and on. This sense of segregation can be frustrating, which is why it's heartening to see events like last month's "Best of the Fest," in which the High Falls, ImageOut, and Jewish film festivals came together to present a weekend of standout films from the festivals' past years. A good movie is a good movie regardless of how you identify.

This is an idea that Lori M. Harter, JCC Rochester International Jewish Film Festival director, and her film programmers clearly take to heart. Yes, the films being screened at the festival all share a connection to the Jewish culture and identity, but more importantly, they each reflect a universal human experience; the kind that have kept people coming to the movies for a century.  

The Rochester Jewish Film Festival celebrates its milestone 15th anniversary this year, with a lineup that spans 18 different countries, and includes 27 feature films (16 narratives and 11 documentaries). Three visiting filmmakers will be in attendance, including producer Nancy Spielberg (sister of Steven) for the festival's Opening Night feature, "Above and Beyond," an award-winning World War II documentary from director Roberta Grossman ("Hava Nagila: The Movie"). On Saturday night, RJFF will team up with the ImageOut Film Festival for Comedy & Cocktails, featuring a cash bar and a double-feature of "Zero Motivation" and "You Must Be Joking." And on Sunday, July 19, RJFF partners with the Rochester Children's Film Festival to present a free screening of the animated short film "Macropolis," with crafts and snacks for kids. The festival will wind down Monday, July 20, with a screening of the French comedy "Serial (Bad) Weddings," leading into the Closing Night festivities.

What follows is City's take on 12 highlights from this year's lineup, providing just a hint of what you can expect to find over the course of the 10-day festival.

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"Belle and Sebastian"

Set in a small town in the French Alps during World War II, this family-friendly tale follows a young boy named Sebastian (Félix Bossuet), as he befriends the feral mountain dog believed to be responsible for killing off the town's livestock. Sneaking off into the mountains, Sebastian trains the dog, Belle, to be a loyal companion, helping her keep one step ahead of the hunting party — led by the boy's grandfather — that means to track the animal down. Meanwhile the German occupation poses a larger threat, as Nazi troops patrol the village, hoping to sniff out those who've been escorting Jewish refugees through the mountains and into Switzerland. Based on the 1965 book by Cécile Aubry, "Belle and Sebastian" feels lovingly old-fashioned, with strong performances and spectacular scenery, kicking off the festival in heartwarming fashion. (Sunday, July 12, 1 p.m., Dryden Theatre)

"To Life!"

Chronicling the unlikely friendship that develops between Ruth (Hannelore Elsner), an aging cabaret singer, and Jonas (Max Riemelt, who can currently be seen on Netflix in the Wachowski siblings' sci-fi action series, "Sense8"), a young man attempting to run from his troubles. Though the story drifts deep into melodrama territory as it goes on (not a bad thing, mind you), the sweet, easy rapport between Elsner and Reimelt — and the lushly photographed period flashbacks to Ruth's singing days — are what make this film worth checking out. (Sunday, July 12, 4 p.m., Dryden Theatre)

"Deli Man"

Is there any piece of Jewish culture as universally beloved as the New York delicatessen? In this charming documentary, director Erik Anjou trains his cameras on David "Ziggy" Gruber, owner and operator of Kenny & Ziggy's Deli in Houston, Texas. A former New Yorker and third-generation deli man, the gregarious Gruber acts as our tour guide, explaining the deli's origins in New York City, where it introduced Americans to a cuisine now inextricably linked to the Jewish identity. Along the way, we stop for a nosh and to kibitz with the proprietors of some of the country's most iconic deli's. While occasionally bemoaning the deli's decline — due to issues like rising costs and a shrinking customer base — Anjou is mostly out to celebrate food that's steeped in tradition. (Monday, July 13, 11 a.m., JCC Hart Theatre)

"Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem"

According to Orthodox Jewish law, a married couple cannot be granted a divorce without the consent of the husband; he must first present his wife with a gett, a religious document signifying the dissolution of the marriage. In this gripping drama from Israeli filmmakers Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, Viviane (played by Ronit) is a woman desperate to escape a loveless marriage with her devout husband (Simon Abkarian), though he refuses to let her go. As Viviane and her lawyer (Menashe Noy) plead her case over and over again in a rabbinic court, the proceedings stretch from months into years. The film never leaves the courtroom, save for a few scenes set in the waiting room just outside, adding to a tightly wound, almost claustrophobic tone, and leaving the audience as emotionally drained as Viviane herself. Ronit Elkabetz's performance is all the more remarkable for how rarely Viviane is allowed to speak for herself, leaving the actress to convey a sense of her character through small gestures or a simple glance, as Viviane struggles to assert her personhood. "Gett" is actually the third in the Elkabetz sibling's trilogy of films about Viviane, though it's not necessary to have seen those previous films. In fact, it often makes the film all the more intriguing, as we're left to puzzle out the truth based solely on the testimonies we hear. (Monday, July 13, 9 p.m., Dryden Theatre)

"Anywhere Else"

A dramedy surrounding the relationships between three generations of women in an Israeli family, "Anywhere Else" follows Noa (Neta Riskin), a 30-something grad student living in Berlin, where she's working on a graduate dissertation about words that have no translation. Feeling stuck in a rut both professionally and romantically, she impulsively returns home to Israel, hoping to find comfort in the arms of her family, instead finding them more likely to bicker and nitpick than support. But when Noa's beloved grandmother falls ill, the family pulls together, providing audiences with an enjoyably low-key lesson on the importance of embracing one's roots. (Tuesday, July 14, 1:30 p.m., JCC Hart Theatre)

"Little White Lie"

Growing up, Lacey Schwartz always viewed herself the way those around her saw her: as a nice, Jewish girl from a fairly traditional family. She was always aware that she looked a little different, but throughout her childhood her parents explained away their daughter's dark skin to anyone who inquired with vague references to an Italian grandfather. The power of denial never ceases to amaze, and this engrossing documentary chronicles the fallout once the truth comes out. In utilizing a closely guarded family secret to examine issues of truth, identity, and family ties, Schwartz's film feels like a companion piece to Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell." A Q&A with Schwartz, who's scheduled to attend the screening, promises to be fascinating. (Tuesday, July 14, 6 p.m., Little Theatre)

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"A Borrowed Identity"

Set in the late 1980's and early 90's, this sensitively-observed coming-of-age story follows Eyad (played as a child by Razi Gabareen and later by Tawfeek Barhom), a gifted Arab student who gets the opportunity to attend a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, and finds himself caught between warring cultures. Eyad develops significant relationships, falling for a Jewish Israeli student, Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), and becoming close with Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a student with muscular dystrophy. But Eyad is never allowed to forget his place as an outsider. Adapted by Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua from his novel "Dancing Arabs," the film does justice to a complex subject, finding dark humor in its conflict, even as it remains less than optimistic about ever finding an end to it. (Tuesday, July 14, 9 p.m., Little Theatre)

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"24 Days"

Based on the real-life crime story that rocked France in 2006, this disturbing thriller details the kidnapping and torture of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi. The film wisely refrains from showing too much of Illan's torment, instead focusing on his family as they do everything in their power to bring Ilan home safely. Gradually we learn that the group of kidnappers, who would come to be known as the Gang of Barbarians, specifically targeted Jews because they believed all Jewish people to be wealthy. Working from the book written by Illan's mother, "24 Days" is ultimately an indictment of the French police who refused to treat the case as the hate crime it was. Director Alexandre Arcady (father of horror director Alexandre Aja, "High Tension" and "Piranha 3D") keeps things tense, and despite that familial connection, he shies away from the more grisly details of the case. (Wednesday, July 15, 9 p.m., Little Theatre)

"Zemene"

This inspirational documentary from filmmaker Melissa Donovan (scheduled to be in attendance) acts as moving tribute to the irrepressible nature of the human spirit. Filming spine specialist Dr. Rick Hodes for an unrelated project, Donovan happened to be in exactly the right place as the doctor spotted 10-year-old Zemene, a shy Ethiopian girl born with a debilitating condition known as Kyphosis — a severe curvature of the spine — as she walked by the coffee shop he frequents. With this chance encounter, Hodes provides Zemene a renewed hope for the future. If you're unaffected by this type of story, you're made of stronger stuff than I. (Thursday, July 16, 6 p.m., Little Theatre)

"Havana Curveball"

As part of his bar mitzvah humanitarian project, San Francisco teenager and avid baseball fan Mica Jarmel-Schneider decides to mail boxes of baseball equipment to children in Cuba. Inspired by stories of his grandfather taking refuge in Havana during the Holocaust, he's determined, even in some small way, to pay back the country that helped save his family. But when Mica faces setbacks after running into the U.S. government's trade sanctions, he embarks on a quest which takes him first to Canada, then all the way to Havana; fortunately his filmmaker parents are on hand to document the journey. The result is a slight, but warmly human documentary that reminds us to do good whenever we can. (Saturday, July 18, 6 p.m., Dryden Theatre)

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"Zero Motivation"

Director Tayla Lavie captures the ennui among a group of female soldiers working in the administration office of a remote desert army base, navigating their way through a male-dominated society. Close friends Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy) are far from dedicated public servants — they're just hoping to pass the time until their required service is over, preferably while doing as little work as possible. And if they find new ways to drive their uptight commander (Shani Klein) crazy along the way, all the better. Functioning as a series of pointed character studies, this sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and ultimately affecting tale of friendship is one of my favorites out of this year's lineup. (Saturday, July 18, 8 p.m., Dryden Theatre)

"You Must Be Joking"

Feeling unfulfilled with her life working as a paralegal at a successful law firm, New York City gal Barb (co-writer Sas Goldberg) reconnects with her childhood best friend (director Jake Wilson), who might be just the person to give her the extra push she needs to get out and explore what she really wants. With Jake's encouragement, she discovers a talent for improv comedy, reigniting her long-abandoned desire to be a performer. Stories about 20-something women struggling to find themselves and make it in the big city are a dime a dozen, but this likeable, easygoing comedy adds enough new twists on the formula to keep things interesting. (Screens immediately after "Zero Motivation," following a 10-minute intermission)

Rochester Jewish Film Festival 2015 Schedule

Sunday, July 12

1 p.m.: "Belle and Sebastian" Dryden Theatre

4 p.m.: "To Life!" Dryden Theatre

7:30 p.m.: "Above and Beyond" Dryden Theatre

Monday, July 13

11 a.m.: "Deli Man" JCC Hart Theatre

1:30 p.m.: "God's Slave" JCC Hart Theatre

6 p.m.: "Mr. Kaplan" Dryden Theatre

9 p.m.: "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" Dryden Theatre

Tuesday, July 14

11 a.m.: "The Green Prince" JCC Hart Theatre

1:30 p.m.: "Anywhere Else" JCC Hart Theatre

6 p.m.: "Little White Lie" Little Theatre

9 p.m.: "A Borrowed Identity" Little Theatre

Wednesday, July 15

11 a.m.: "The Return" JCC Hart Theatre

2 p.m.: "Sacred Sperm" JCC Hart Theatre

6 p.m.: "Beneath The Helmet" Little Theatre

9 p.m.: "24 Days" Little Theatre

Thursday, July 16

11 a.m.: "The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer" JCC Hart Theatre

1:30 p.m.: "Hanna's Journey" JCC Hart Theatre

6 p.m.: "Zemene" Little Theatre

9 p.m.: "The Farewell Party" Little Theatre

Saturday, July 18

6 p.m.: "Havana Curveball" Dryden Theatre

8 p.m.: "Zero Motivation" and "You Must Be Joking" Dryden Theatre

Sunday, July 19

10:30 a.m.: "Macropolis" JCC Resource Place

2 p.m.: "The Dove Flyer" Dryden Theatre

6 p.m.: "Dough" Dryden Theatre

8:30 p.m.: "The Last Mentsch" Dryden Theatre

Monday, July 20

7 p.m.: "Serial (Bad) Weddings" Dryden Theatre

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  • The Rochester Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 15th year with one of its largest festivals.

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