Old Fateful: Jacobs neighbor a former Nazi?s neighbor a former Nazi?
Old Fateful: Jacobs neighbor a former Nazi?s neighbor a former Nazi?

The Washington Jewish Film Festival features more than 80 films screened over the course of 11 days, starting tonight. Here, a few reviews of festival standouts.

The Return

Adam Zucker’s documentary The Return follows four modern-day Idas, Polish women discussing when they learned they were Jewish and struggling to define what it means as an identity. Through the Holocaust and Soviet occupation, Polish Jews kept that part of their family histories in a vault, some until their deathbed. The film explores the religious and cultural aspects of leading a Jewish life, with several comments from people who are self-conscious about it in Poland but feel at home elsewhere, like Israel. (Except for the 20-something Tusia: “When in Warsaw, being Jewish is my primary identity, whereas in Brooklyn, I know nothing about being a Jew.”) The Return meanders a bit toward the end, and it can be difficult to keep up with the featured women’s storylines—which focus on their decisions to convert, study, or simply ignore their Judaism—due to messy editing. You may also be lost if you’re not familiar with Polish history. Still, the happy ending is worth the time it’ll take to brush up. —Tricia Olszewski

Saturday, Feb. 21 at 2:30 p.m. at the DCJCC and Sunday, March 1 at 2:30 p.m. at Goethe-Institut

Deli Man

There exists a short but delectable list of movies that you should not watch on an empty stomach: Big Night, Chef, and now, Deli Man. A meditation and exploration of the Jewish delicatessen, Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary features ample footage of scrumptious Jewish nosh: sandwiches piled high with corned beef and pastrami, matzah ball soup, and even obscure delicacies like a stew made out of cow innards. Needless to say, vegetarians would be wise to look elsewhere. But even if a pile of meat is not your thing, Deli Man’s portrait of the deli as a fading subculture is worth savoring. Anjou traces the deli’s history from its humble New York City origins in the ‘30s to its renaissance in the ‘40s and ‘50s up to its more recent precipitous decline. What emerges is a portrait of a people defined, for better and for worse, by their commitment to tradition and authenticity, which is a challenge in a marketplace that always values the hot, new dish. Featuring interviews with famous deli connoisseurs like Jerry Stiller and Larry King, Deli Man is consistently entertaining and surprisingly filling. —Noah Gittell

Saturday, Feb. 21 at 4:30 p.m. at the DCJCC and Monday, Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC of Greater Washington (Rockville)

Mr. Kaplan

Movies about elderly protagonists who find a renewed sense of purpose late in life have formed their own genre these days, but Mr. Kaplan gives that familiar tale a grim and glorious new sheen. In Uruguay’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, Héctor Noguera plays Jacob, an octogenarian who fled the Holocaust as a boy and has built a successful life in Uruguay. Now struggling with age-induced depression, he is revitalized when he discovers that an old German man who lives at a nearby beach may actually be a former Nazi in hiding. Buoyed by the chance to do something important for his people, Jacob enthusiastically sets out to bring this escaped fugitive to justice, enlisting the help of a retired cop that his family recently hired to keep tabs on him. It is a perceptive story about the indignities of aging, is told with a youthful flair. Writer/director Álvaro Brechner displays great command of tone and genre, blending the mystery, comedy, and human drama of Mr. Kaplan into a cohesive and compelling whole. —Noah Gittell

Saturday, Feb. 21 at 8:45 p.m. at the JCC of Greater Washington (Rockville) and Sunday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the DCJCC

Apples From the Desert

The oppression felt by 19-year-old Rivka in Apples From the Desert is suffocating enough to make any viewer feel like running away. Both she and her mother bend to her tyrannical father’s will in their Orthodox Jerusalem home, but only Rivka has the guts to eventually stick up for herself, slowing letting herself into the secular world (dancing! boys!) before cutting the cord entirely and moving to a kibbutz. (The impetus? An impending arranged marriage to a man twice her age with kids.) Directed by Arik Lubetzky and Matti Harari, Apples is a lovely coming-of-age story, with Rivka’s do-as-I-please aunt providing humor. (Sassy aunt, sassy best friend—the trope translates.) When Rivka does contact her family, the confrontation isn’t completely believable—how many strict moms would suddenly be happy to talk to their virginal daughters about boyfriends on the bed the couple shares? But the final scene, while a bit tidy, is quiet and elegant, a realistic reflection of parents accepting that their child has grown up. —Tricia Olszewski

Sunday, Feb. 22 at 3 p.m. at AFI Silver; Sunday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. at the JCC of Greater Washington (Rockville); and Sunday, March 1 at 12:30 p.m. at American University’s Malsi Doyle and Michael Forman Theater

Little White Lie

The lifelong mystery that Lacey Schwartz explores in her self-directed film Little White Lie isn’t difficult to figure out—the answer is the most obvious one. Schwartz was born to and raised by white Jewish parents in Woodstock, N.Y. Despite nagging but quickly dismissed questions about her dark skin and hair (her Sicilian great-grandfather, she thinks, is to blame), Schwartz easily identifies as white and Jewish. Viewers won’t be surprised to learn that her mother’d had an affair, which Schwartz finally learns when she’s in college, spurring her to use the documentary form to examine race and how it defines us. While attending Georgetown University, Schwartz’s photo was enough to grant her an invitation to a black student group, the start of her exploration of a new culture with diverse friends. “I felt better as black,” she says, though the reasoning is nearly as difficult for her to articulate as it is for viewers who are certain of their race to understand. The truly jaw-dropping part of Schwartz’s documentary is the unrelenting denial everyone in her life maintained, as if Schwartz’s biraciality were as trivial a family matter as “Uncle Joe’s drunk again.” Though Schwartz’s true parentage is the film’s least surprising news, the runner-up is this: “That’s when I went to therapy.” —Tricia Olszewski

Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC of Greater Washington (Rockville) and Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 7:15 p.m. at AFI Silver

Almost Friends

In Western society, Facebook is mostly a means of embarrassing yourself with half-naked photos and TMI, where most users accept friend requests from random strangers without giving it much thought. But Almost Friends, directed by Nitzan Ofir and Barak Heymann, offers a glimpse of virtual correspondence as the subject of heavy debate by mothers in the Middle East, where online relationships between Arab and Jewish grade-school children are taboo. Two schools—a secular one in Lod and a religious institution in Tlamim—attempt to foster some small-scale harmony by inviting their students to become pen pals. With the caveat that the girls’ messages will be monitored, the parents in this film agree to it with varying levels of comfort. (One mother says she wouldn’t want her Arabic child marrying a Jew, so why encourage connections now?) Soon, the girls—who are quite sophisticated about the conflicts that surround them—are allowed to meet, and though they see and enjoy each other through children’s eyes, the adults in their lives rein things in. In an ideal world, they would learn from their kids: When the Jewish Linor is asked what her pen pal is like, she says, “Every person would want such a friend.” —Tricia Olszewski

Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 8:30 p.m. at the DCJCC and Sunday, March 1 at 12:30 p.m. at Goethe-Institut

My Favorite Neoconservative

Like many young Americans, Chevy Chase resident Yael Luttwak has some political differences with her parents. But her father is Edward Luttwak, a renowned neoconservative who has, for the last 20 years, helped make the case for military action in the Middle East. In the short film My Favorite Neoconservative, Yael follows her father around with a camera for one long, uncomfortable month. From their family home to military conferences, she stays by his side, filming his every move and pestering him with questions. Her endgame seems muddled—in one scene, she makes a heartfelt attempt to connect with her father; in another, she rudely interrupts him during a private meeting—but there’s something universal in her intentions. In this era of deep political divisions, Yael’s ambivalence towards the other side resonates, and the deeply felt hostility between father and daughter is painfully authentic. The film is not the “subversive, left-wing propaganda” that Edward tells a colleague it is. Rather, it’s an honest attempt to engage with another side of political discourse and, though Yael’s efforts are not always successful, her actions could be a needed inspiration for the rest of us. —Noah Gittell

Sunday, March 1 at 3:15 p.m. at the DCJCC