Harvey Hoffman and his wife, Paula, founded the Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival in 2007. Prior to Hoffman’s death in 2011, a few months after that year’s festival, he believed the event would not continue.
“He thought that the 2011 festival would be the last,” Ara Rubyan, Hoffman’s son-in-law, said. “Harvey knew he was sick, but he didn’t want to burden us with the expectation that we had to carry the festival on after he was gone.”
But the Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival would go on.
“We talked about it with Harvey, whether we wanted to keep it going,” Rubyan recalled. “Near the end of Harvey’s life, we said, ‘Look. If it’s OK with you, we’d like to keep it going.’ He said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ ”
It helps that Rubyan already loved going to the movies.
In its seventh year at the Manship Theatre, the Jewish Film Festival again features five films screened over multiple days. The movies are selected by Rubyan and his wife, Julie Hoffman, the festival’s co-chairman, plus a committee of about a dozen judges.
Choosing films for the festival is more art than science.
“What we look for, first and foremost, is a great film,” Rubyan said. “It’s got to be a great film, but it also has to have something identifiably Jewish. That could be anything from a story about the Holocaust to a story about Israel in the current day. It could be a story set in the U.S. with Jewish characters. It could be a film by a notable Jewish director.
“We’ve also shown films that are set in Israel but, if you were to just change the language from Hebrew to English and move it to Chicago, they would not be Jewish films. But because it’s set in modern Tel Aviv, it shows a slice of Jewish life that people might not otherwise see.”
Because Baton Rouge’s Jewish film festival is a miniscule event compared to other Jewish film festivals, which show as many as 50 and more films, choosing five films for the Baton Rouge festival’s five slots is a challenge.
“The hardest part is deciding which two or three terrific films are not good enough to replace the five that get the limited number of spots,” Rubyan said.
Whatever Jewish themes the festival’s films may contain, the stories and characters may also relate to any group of people anywhere.
“People are surprised when I say the majority of our audience is not Jewish,” Rubyan said. “The Jewish population in Baton Rouge is tiny, but people will come out to see good films. If the films have Jewish themes, I think you’ll find that those are universal themes.”
Enthusiastic about all the films in this year’s festival though Rubyan is, he’s especially fond of Hava Nagila: The Movie. A documentary about the Jewish folk song, “Hava Nagila,” the film’s post-production was financed in part by the Harvey Hoffman Film Fund, a fund established by the Manship Theatre.
“A cantor in the film,” Rubyan said, “says the Hasidic Jews believe there are 10 levels of prayer and then, above that, is music. When I heard that, I just went, ‘We have got to show this movie.’ In the festival community and the Jewish community, it’s already garnered a reputation as a really terrific film.”
Hava Nagila: The Movie’s writer and co-director, Roberta Grossman, will attend Saturday night’s screening.
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 7 p.m.
Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story— Yonaton “Yoni” Netanyahu, older brother of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, led the 1976 raid that freed 100 hijacked hostages held by terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda.Follow Me mixes a day-by-day account of the hostage crisis with archival photos and home movies of Netanyahu’s life. The film also draws from letters he wrote to loved ones. (U.S., 1 hr., 24 mins., 2012).
Thursday, Jan. 17, 7 p.m.
Torn— Twelve years after his ordination as a Catholic priest, Romuald Waszkinel discovers that his parents were Jewish and his birth name is Jacob Weksler. Waszkinel is torn by his suddenly dual identities. This documentary follows Waszkinel from conducting Mass in Poland to living as an observant Jew in an Israeli kibbutz. (Israel, 1 hr., 12 mins.)
Saturday, Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m.
Hava Nagila: The Movie— This new documentary about “Hava Nagila,” the ubiquitous Jewish folk song, follows the song that’s a must for Jewish gatherings from its Eastern Europe origins to modern-day American suburbs. The film includes interviews with Harry Belafonte, Leonard Nimoy, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell and Regina Spektor. (U.S., 75 mins., 2013).
Sunday, Jan. 20, 1 p.m.
Foreign Letters— Ellie is a lonely 12-year-old immigrant from Israel. Newly arrived to the U.S., she treasures letters from her homeland. Rejected at school and having difficulty with English, Ellie nevertheless makes a friend in Thuy, a Vietnamese refugee who’s Ellie’s age. Foreign Letters is based upon writer-director Ela Their and her family’s immigration to the U.S. in 1982. (U.S., 1 hr., 24 mins., 2012).
Sunday, Jan. 20, 4 p.m.
Footnote — This 2011 drama focuses upon a father son, Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, who are both Talmudic scholars. The elder Shkolnik fears the Talmudic academic establishment and has never been recognized for his work. But the younger Shkolnik is a rising star who pursues recognition. (Israel, 1 hr., 43 mins., 2011).