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Preview: 2017 Rochester International Jewish Film Festival 

The warm weather brings with it Rochester's largest summer film event: the annual JCC Ames Amzalak Rochester International Jewish Film Festival. Marking its 17th year, the festival celebrates Jewish culture and heritage through nine days of film screenings, live performances, guest directors, and post-film discussions. The RIJFF begins Sunday, July 9, and runs through Monday, July 17, at The Little Theatre (240 East Avenue), the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum (900 East Avenue), and the Hart Theater at the JCC (1200 Edgewood Avenue).

The festival's closing night will be at a new venue this year, Nazareth College's Arts Center (4245 East Avenue), for a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary short film, "Joe's Violin." The short follows the moving story of Holocaust survivor Joe Feingold, who donates his prized violin to a school instrument drive, allowing it to reach the hands of Brianna, a young Bronx schoolgirl. That screening will be followed by a performance from Nashville-based Americana duo Wisewater, featuring Webster-native Kate Lee and Forrest O'Connor -- both are members of the O'Connor Band, which recently took home the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

What follows is CITY's take on 10 highlights from this year's lineup, which is just a hint of what you can expect to find over the course of the festival. General admission tickets to each film are $12 ($10 for JCC members) and $5 for students; matinee tickets are $9 ($7); opening and closing night tickets are $20 ($15); festival passes are $185 ($170); and matinee passes are $60 ($45). For more tickets and a full schedule of films and events, visit rjff.org. Tickets can also be purchased by calling 461-2000 or in person at the JCC.

click to enlarge "Abulele" - PHOTO COURTESY RIJFF
  • PHOTO COURTESY RIJFF
  • "Abulele"

The festival gets started with the family-friendly fantasy "Abulele," from Israeli director Jonathan Geva. Still coping with grief over the death of his older brother, 10-year-old Adam (Yoav Sadian) is befriended by the Abulele, a giant, mythical creature resembling a large gorilla with a deep, gravelly voice and the cat-like eyes of Toothless from "How to Train Your Dragon." As Adam helps the Abulele keep one step ahead of the mysterious government forces who are hunting him, the friendly beast helps the young boy feel a little less alone in the world. Geva is clearly going for an "E.T." style tale and, some pacing issues aside, it's a charmingly heartfelt, small-scale adventure story. (Sunday, July 9; 1 p.m.; Dryden Theatre)

An unfortunate accident leads to a major rift in a small, tight-knit Jewish community in RIJFF's Opening Night selection, "The Women's Balcony." When the balcony of the neighborhood's gender-segregated synagogue collapses during a bar mitzvah celebration, the incident leaves the rabbi's wife in a coma and the rabbi himself unable to carry out his duties. The devout congregation's future seems in jeopardy, until a new, charismatic young rabbi helpfully offers up his services. However, it soon becomes clear that he intends to enforce some rather conservative ideas about faith and worship, and many of those ideas have to do with keeping the women of the synagogue in check. Then the rebuilt synagogue is unveiled and no longer has a section for the women. The congregation immediately splinters along gender lines, leading to all-out battle of the sexes. Smart direction from first-timer Emil Ben-Shimon and a sharp script from Shlomit Nehama offer up a light-hearted, but meaningful (and often quite funny) examination of sexism and religious fundamentalism. (Sunday, July 9; 7 p.m.; Dryden)

"In Between" is a vibrant, modern, and sometimes heartbreaking story of three Palestinian women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv. Layla (Mouna Hawa) is a lawyer, determined to live uncompromisingly on her own terms; Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is an aspiring DJ and lesbian, though she remains closeted to her conservative Christian family. The pair's lives of hard work and even harder partying is disrupted momentarily when the third room in their flat is taken by Nour (Shaden Kanboura), the Hijabi friend of a cousin who's moved to the city to complete her graduate studies. Though remarkably different on the surface, the women soon bond as they navigate between tradition and the freedom of living on their own in a predominantly Jewish society. From Arab-Israeli writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud, "In Between" focuses on the bounds of sisterhood and the strength it takes to forge one's own path with the confidence to be exactly who you are. (Monday, July 10; 11 a.m.; JCC Hart Theater)

click to enlarge "In Between" - PHOTO COURTESY RIJFF
  • PHOTO COURTESY RIJFF
  • "In Between"

Inspired by a true story, "Fanny's Journey" follows a group of eight Jewish children on a desperate quest for survival as they flee Nazi-occupied France. With the threat of German invasion imminent, boarding school headmistress Madame Forman (Cecile de France) attempts to spirit her young charges out of harm's way, but circumstances beyond her control leave 13-year-old Fanny (Léonie Souchaud) in charge of the group as they navigate their way to the safety of the Swiss border. Filmmaker Lola Doillon shows great skill in tackling the material from a child's eye view, and without ever talking down to her audience. She has a remarkable way with her child cast, who capably carry the film on their young shoulders. (Monday, July 10; 6 p.m.; Little Theatre)

"Germans and Jews" examines the legacy of the Holocaust and the ways, more than 70 years later, it still colors the relationship between Germany and its Jewish population. As the country's citizens continue to work at striking a balance between remembering and healing, younger generations are left to grapple with their country's role in history (in many cases the part their own family members may have played). In tackling a fascinating and thorny subject, director Janina Quint wisely never sets out to provide concrete answers, leaving viewers to decide for themselves the path through guilt and reconciliation in seeking a way to move forward together. (Monday, July 10; 8:30 p.m.; Little Theatre)

The inspirational "My Hero Brother" celebrates the bonds between brothers and sisters as it follows a group of young people with Down syndrome as they set off on an expedition through the Himalayas with their siblings. Director Yonatan Nir gives us an intimate look at both the physical and mental challenges of living with Down syndrome as well as the complexities of growing up alongside someone with special needs. (Tuesday, July 11; 6 p.m.; Little)

Writer-director Asaph Polonsky brings a light touch to the heavy subject of grief in his debut feature, "One Week and a Day," which finds middle-aged suburban couple Eyal (Shai Avivi) and Vicky (Evgenia Dodina) processing the recent death of their 25-year-old son. The film begins just as Shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) has ended, and as anyone who has experienced it knows, that's when grief gets the opportunity to truly kick in. Husband and wife cope in their own ways: for Eyal that means spending as much time as possible smoking weed with his neighbor's son (Tomer Kapon); and Vicky is eager to dive back into her normal daily routine. But it's clear both are doing anything they can to avoid actually dealing with their loss. Polonsky brings a necessary, mordant humor to a story about being forced to transition back into normal life when you're not sure "normal" is still possible. (Wednesday, July 12; 6 p.m.; Little)

click to enlarge "Monsieur Mayonaisse" - PHOTO COURTESY RIJFF
  • PHOTO COURTESY RIJFF
  • "Monsieur Mayonaisse"

In his weird and wonderful documentary "Monsieur Mayonnaise," director Trevor Graham follows artist and filmmaker Philippe Mora as he researches his late father's exploits in the French Resistance, hoping to turn the extraordinary story into the subject of a graphic novel. This is probably the only documentary to incorporate archival footage of Hitler, Marcel Marceau, and the nuttiest clips from werewolf flicks "The Howling II" and "Howling III" (both directed by Mora). The framing structure featuring Mora as a film noir detective adds nothing to an already stuffed narrative, but thankfully it doesn't detract from its wildly entertaining story either. (Thursday, July 13; 11 a.m.; JCC Hart Theater)

"We are made of memory," someone says late in "Shalom Italia," a compelling documentary from director Tamar Tal Anati. The filmmaker chronicles a trip undertaken by Bubi, Andrea, and Emmanuel, three octogenarian brothers in search of the cave in Tuscany where as children their family hid to escape the Nazis. The journey soon turns into a poignant examination of memories and how they shape our identity, asking us to consider what we remember from our lives, how we remember it, and occasionally what we choose to forget. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director. (Sunday, July 16; 7:30 p.m.; Dryden)

Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of irreverent nun-centric comedy, "The Little Hours," starring Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, John C. Reilly, and Dave Franco.

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