In its 12th year, the Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival is presenting two high-profile films this weekend at the Manship Theatre.
Screening Saturday, “Denial” stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, the real-life American author and historian. The film dramatizes the libel suit British Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Lipstadt and Penguin Books in 1996.
Showing Sunday, “Norman” stars Richard Gere in a comedy about a New York City hustler who catches a big break. Israeli-American filmmaker Joseph Cedar wrote and directed. Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Israeli stage and screen actor Lior Ashkenazi co-star.
“They’re both polished Hollywood movies with recognizable stars,” Jewish Film Festival co-chairman Ara Rubyan said. “Which is not always the case for the films that we show.”
Although “Norman” is funny, he said, “it’s a dark humor that will make you squirm a little in your seat. It’s a character study about a New York fixer, the kind of guy who always figures out how he can help you so that both he and you can benefit. He’s always looking for an angle.”
The characters in “Norman” can be quite realistic, Rubyan said.
“Norman is a fundraiser for a synagogue," he said. "I served as the president of my synagogue. The depiction of the board of trustees in the movie is spot on.”
Following the “Denial” screening, the festival will screen a short documentary featuring the trial's real-life participants.
“The whole topic of 'Denial,' post-truth and fake news, it’s really timely,” Rubyan said.
“Denial” and “Norman” both fulfill the festival’s mission to present movies that make emotional connections to audiences, Rubyan said.
“Even if you’re not Jewish — and the majority of our audience is not — we want you to look at the screen and say, ‘Hey, that’s something that I experienced.’ ”
Rubyan has been involved with the Jewish Film Festival since it began. His in-laws, Paula and the late Harvey Hoffman, launched the event in 2007. When Rubyan married into the Hoffman family, he also married into the Jewish Film Festival.
In 2011, Harvey Hoffman, knowing he had a serious illness, didn’t presume to ask his family to continue the festival. Hoffman was delighted when his family volunteered to keep the event going.
Rubyan shares co-chairmanship of the festival with Paula Hoffman and his wife, Julie Hoffman, who serves as chief curator for the festival. Listeners of WRKF-FM know Julie Hoffman as on-air personality Julie Rubyan.
“Julie will bring films to me and say, ‘Hey, I think you’re going to like this.’ Most of the time, I agree. On rare occasions, I’ll recommend a film to Julie," Rubyan said. "Paula occasionally looks at the films, and sometimes our kids, who grew up in the household doing this, provide tie-breaking votes. We also have friends and patrons of the festival whose opinions we value. We’ll give them a sneak preview. So, it’s somewhat by consensus.”
The question of what makes a film Jewish frequently comes up. Rubyan loosely defines the criteria as films with Jewish themes. That can include such Hollywood classics as “Exodus” and “The Ten Commandments.”
“When we started the festival, we found that a Jewish theme can cover a lot of territory,” Rubyan said. “It can be something with a straight-forward story that takes place in Tel Aviv, that gives you a slice of Jewish life. Or it can be historical documentaries, Holocaust films or comedies. It’s a broad terrain.”
BATON ROUGE JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
"Denial" screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" screens at 3 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge
COST: $10.50 per screening