Cinemadope: Festival of Lights

Now in its ninth year, The Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival (PVJFF) has become a driving force in bringing Jewish-oriented films big and small to area screens. The annual festival’s strong mix of subjects and styles—documentaries and dramas sit side by side with comedies and animated works—provides something for all tastes, and while observant filmgoers may find some extra layers of meaning to the offerings, the films are first and foremost simply great films. In other words: not Jewish? Not a problem.

This year’s festival is already up and running, but there is still a good slate of films left to see, in venues all over the Valley map, before the two and a half week series draws to a close on April 6. And it’s not just films on offer: the festival organizers also present speakers, special events, and collaborations with local educational and cultural organizations to enrich the cinema experience and give filmgoers a wider sense of modern Jewish culture, politics, and daily life both secular and religious. Here’s a bit of what’s still to come this year; for a full schedule, visit online.

On Thursday, March 27, Springfield College hosts the documentary 50 Children in a 7 p.m. screening at the Marsh Chapel. A remarkable but largely untold story of the WWII era, it describes the valiant efforts of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who in 1939 journeyed to Vienna in an attempt to help 50 children escape the Nazi-occupied country. While they were forced to deal with Nazi officials overseas, they found themselves equally at odds with American immigration policies which made it difficult for them to save the group from increasingly desperate conditions. Writer/director Steven Pressman will be on hand to talk about the film, and about how he managed to track down some of the surviving children.

Jump ahead to Tuesday evening, and another film shares a similar story of selflessness. Nicky’s Family, screening at the Springfield Jewish Community Center, is an award-winning look at the life of Sir Nicholas Winton, a man now known as “the British Schindler” for his efforts to save children put in harm’s way by war. A young stockbroker when he organized the rescue of almost 700 Czech and Slovak children, he told no one of his heroism for half a century—and likely would have kept his secret, if his wife hadn’t run across a suitcase in their attic, filled with the travel documents from just before the outbreak of World War II. Helping to tell his story in a Q&A following the film are Eva Paddock and Ivan Backer, two of the children saved through Winton’s efforts.

If you’re looking for a taste of the Jewish comedic tradition, Pothole Pictures is screening the recent Coen Brothers film A Serious Man as part of the festival. Lighting up the screen at Shelburne Falls’ Memorial Hall on Saturday night, the Coens’ film captures the sometimes fractured experience of Jewish life in the American Midwest. Set in the late 1960s, it follows the put-upon physics professor Larry Gopnik as he tries to balance doing the right thing with the realities of his life: a son who gets stoned at his own bar mitzvah, a daughter who wants a nose job, and a wife who is busy moving her lover into the house. Perhaps most alarming: the rabbi Gopnik hopes to turn to for wisdom has a thing for quoting Jefferson Airplane lyrics.

Another lighter film arrives in the form of the crime comedy Hunting Elephants, screening at Greenfield’s Garden Cinema on Wednesday night. A smash hit in its native Israel, the film brings together a strong Israeli cast along with one heck of a ringer: Sir Patrick Stewart is on board as the eccentric English uncle to the teenaged Jonathan, a smart but awkward boy who has lost his banker father in a workplace death. When the boy is left in the care of his grandfather—a former bank robber—the pair team up with Stewart’s Lord Michael Simpson (who has his own motives in joining the crew) to break into the vault, steal themselves a nest egg or three, and avenge a death.•


Jack Brown can be reached at

Author: Jack Brown

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