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Preview: Rochester Jewish Film Festival 

The chosen films

The 19th annual Jewish Community Center's Ames Amzalak Rochester Jewish Film Festival (RJFF) kicks off this Sunday, celebrating all aspects of Jewish culture with an array of contemporary films from around the world. The eight-day festival will run from Sunday, July 7 through Monday, July 14 showcasing a collection of 26 films that includes entries from 18 countries, including 13 feature-length narratives, 12 feature-length documentaries, and one special event screening of the first two episodes of popular new Israeli television series "The Conductor."

The RJFF will be screening films at The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum (900 East Avenue) and the JCC Hart Theatre (1200 Edgewood Avenue in Brighton). Passes and tickets can be purchased in person at the JCC, by phone at 461-2000, or online at

As the festival gets started, CITY takes a look at a few highlights from this year's lineup.

This year's Opening Night film is the inspiring documentary "93Queen," which chronicles the efforts of Rachel "Ruchie" Freier to create Ezras Nashim, the first all-female volunteer ambulance corps in New York City. Laws of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community strictly prohibit contact between unmarried men and women, and even though exceptions exist for life-threatening emergencies, some women remained reluctant to call the mostly male local ambulance service. As Freier fights to gain support while sticking to her own deeply-held religious beliefs, Paula Eiselt's fascinating film shows how women of the Hasidic community find ways to make progress entirely on their own terms. (Sunday, July 7, 7 p.m. at the Dryden Theatre)

"Fig Tree" is a coming-of-age story centered on Mina (the wonderful Betalehem Asmamawe), a 16-year-old girl living with her brother and grandmother in 1989 Addis Ababa. The family is Jewish, and is desperately making plans to escape the Ethiopian Civil War by fleeing to Israel, where Mina's mother is already waiting for them. But Mina refuses to leave behind Eli, her Christian boyfriend who's taken to living in the woods as a means to evade being drafted into the army. A loosely autobiographical story from Ethiopian-Israeli writer-director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian, "Fig Tree" is a heartbreaking drama about the struggle to hold onto innocence in the face of upheaval and brutal conflict. (Monday, July 8, 9 p.m. at the Dryden Theatre)

The lively documentary "The Mamboniks" takes its title from the name for dance enthusiasts who are just crazy about the mambo. Directed by Lex Gillespie, the film traces the origins of the dance as it traveled from Havana, Cuba to America in the early 50's. As it made its way to the clubs of New York City, it captured the hearts of Jewish immigrants who took to the hip-shaking Latin rhythms mixed with the snazzy moves of American swing. Now retired, many of them are still mamboing to their heart's content on the dance floors of Florida. Filled with the toe-tapping Afro-Cuban sounds of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, "The Mamboniks" is an exuberant ode to living life at full volume. (Thursday, July 11, 11 a.m. at the JCC Hart Theater)

If you're already going through Jazz Fest withdrawal, the RJFF has got you covered with "It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story," a documentary about legendary jazz label Blue Note Records and its German founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. Chronicling the creation of the label, the film shows how fleeing Hitler and the Nazis in late 1930s made the pair uniquely sympathetic to the discrimination faced by black artists in America. Treating these musicians with a respect and dignity they rarely found elsewhere had artists flocking to work with them, eventually helping the label to produce records from an incredible roster of greats, including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Quincy Jones among many, many others. (Thursday, July 11, 6 p.m. at the Dryden Theatre)

Finding comedy in any aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tricky proposition, but writer-director Sameh Zoabi's irreverent farce "Tel Aviv on Fire" manages shockingly well. The film follows Salaam, a Palestinian living in Jerusalem who -- thanks to his showrunner uncle -- lands a gig writing for the eponymous popular soap opera, set in 1967 a few months before the start of the Six-Day War. Making his daily trip through Israeli checkpoints to get work in Ramallah, Salaam crosses paths with an Israeli commander whose wife happens to be a big fan of the show.

Soon Salaam's getting suggestions for plotlines and dialogue changes from the commander to keep his wife happy. But when those changes go over surprisingly well, Salaam's career takes on heat and he finds himself torn between serving two very different objectives. Prodding at the absurdity of the situation in Israel, Zoabi allows his characters to discover their shared humanity, even if the common ground comes from something as simple as shared love of cheesy television. (Thursday, July 11, 8:45 p.m. at the Dryden Theatre)

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