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At Miami Jewish Film Festival, a Hollywood romance born in South Florida

In 1947, Lillian Michelson didn't hesitate to say yes when her boyfriend, Harold, asked her to move to Los Angeles and get married. She was 19, and had bounced from orphanage to orphanage as a child. Without blood relatives in South Florida, she packed her life into a suitcase and left Miami Beach behind.

They eloped to Hollywood, married and hitched their names to the some of most celebrated movie classics of the past 60 years, including "The Ten Commandments," "West Side Story," "The Graduate," "Rocky," "Raging Bull," "Scarface," "Full Metal Jacket." The lives and whirlwind romance of storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife, film researcher Lillian, are recounted in the new Daniel Raim-directed documentary, "Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story."

The film will premiere 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, at Miami Beach Cinematheque as part of the 20th annual Miami Jewish Film Festival. It's a mash note to an unsung Hollywood power couple and the craft of moviemaking, featuring interviews with Danny DeVito (an executive producer) and directors Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola. As a storyboard artist, Harold, who died in 2007, sketched a film's setting and characters with ink and charcoal before a single sequence was shot on film. None of Harold's illustrations was possible, Raim argues in the film, without Lillian, who maintained a vital film research library at Paramount Studios.

"I was getting a college education working on these different movies," Lillian Michelson, 88, recalls by phone from Los Angeles. "I was plunged into a different life with each movie. Harold and I became a team in our work, as well, I hope, as in our marriage."

The Michelsons found married life challenging at first, with an autistic son and scant illustration work in the early 1950s. But Harold worked his way up to designing storyboards for "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus," and later Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." He composed the iconic shot of Dustin Hoffman framed within the arch of Anne Bancroft's leg in "The Graduate."

Meanwhile, Lillian's research sharpened the accuracy of the films. She studied old-fashioned women's underwear for "Fiddler on the Roof" and delved into the occult and witchcraft for "Rosemary's Baby." Once, while researching the cocaine trade for "Scarface," Lillian called a retired drug lord (he was "a nice Jewish boy," she says), who invited her to visit his South American drug labs. She was exhilarated. Harold was not.

"I used to get in a lot of fights with my husband about that," Lillian says. "He was saying, 'You have an obligation to your children to stay alive!' So this nice Jewish boy sent me photographs of his drug labs instead."

"Harold and Lillian" joins 65 indie films and documentaries from 20 countries that will screen Jan. 12-Jan. 26 at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. The program, offered by the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, was assembled by Igor Shteyrenberg, the festival's 32-year-old director. Since joining the festival in 2013, Shteyrenberg has grown its attendance from 4,000 to 25,000.

The surge in festivalgoers is in part fueled by his Next Wave Memberships program, free for anyone aged 21 to 35, which grants passes to Miami Jewish Film Society screenings and discounts at the festival. Shteyrenberg says he isn't aggressively targeting young film buffs, but he's hoping to change stereotypes about Jewish film festivals.

"There's a stigma that Jewish film festivals cater to an older crowd, that they only screen Holocaust films," Shteyreberg says. "It's not about going younger. It's about being more inclusive. We're trying to say we're a creative and kick-ass festival run by a 32-year-old film lover. There's no agenda except showing the very best of international cinema."

Among the world premieres is "1945" (7 p.m. Jan. 23 at Miami Beach Cinemateque), Ferenc Török's drama about a pair of Orthodox Jews who return to a Hungarian village after World War II to reclaim their possessions stolen by townsfolk. In lighter fare, there's "The Jews" (6 p.m. Jan. 23 at Regal Cinema South Beach), a comedic study in anti-Semitic stereotypes starring actor-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg; and "S Is for Stanley" (7 p.m. Jan. 16 at Miami Beach Cinematheque), following an Italian immigrant named Emilio D'Alessandro, who became filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's personal assistant for 30 years.

The Miami Jewish Film Festival will open Thursday, Jan. 12, and run through Jan. 26 at nine theaters in Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables and Miami Shores. Admission is $11-$13 per film, $250 for festival pass. Call 888-585-3456 or go to MiamiJewishFilmFestival.org.

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