The director of the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival for only six months, Ellen Wedner says she has already dispeled the perception that it is "another doom-and-gloom Holocaust festival."
"I think all Jewish film festivals get pigeonholed by people sitting under a rock somewhere," says Wedner, not unfamiliar to such grievances after 10 years as director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival and before that, as managing director of the Miami International Film Festival. "I think we work hard to present other facets or Jewish life, like the Jewishness of our sense of humor in the Borscht Belt, or our food and our romance and our music."
Wedner's retooled festival, the Mandel JCC of the Palm Beaches' signature event, will unspool 39 films in 58 screenings across Palm Beach County from Jan. 16 to Jan. 26, widening its territory this year to theaters in Delray Beach and West Palm Beach. Dipping into southern Palm Beach is only one of Wedner's festival overhauls, which also include a new ticketing system ("behind-the-scenes stuff," she says); a focus on younger-trending Jewish dramas ("the audience tends to be older"); and the festival's first dedicated iPhone and Android app ("not that we expect a ton of downloads").
"It's younger, more modern and more convenient," Wedner says of the festival's 24th edition. "Having lived in South Florida for the last 20 years, I know we don't love driving. You're not coming to Palm Beach Gardens if you live in Deerfield, let's be real. That way everyone gets to experience the films and the talkbacks."
Musicals and the Borscht Belt
Thursday night's curtain-raiser, the South Florida premiere of Borscht Belt documentary "When Comedy Went to School" (7 p.m. Jan. 16), is a portrait of Jewish comics in the Catskill Mountains, that breeding ground of modern comedy that made giants out of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Seinfeld. The doc, narrated by comedian Robert Klein, features interviews with Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis and others who recall a flourishing resort scene where food was ubiquitous, punch lines flew fast and no comic seemed averse to romance.
"Larry King talks about getting laid on the basketball court," Wedner says with a laugh. "There was a lot happening in those cabins."
Also in the Catskills category is the short film "Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop" (11 a.m. Jan. 19 and Jan. 20), a nine-minute chronicle of the NBA great's high school summer job at Kutsher's Country Club, where he was a 7-foot-1 bellhop by day and a center for the resort's basketball team by night. Other comedy highlights in the festival include the Michael Kantor-directed "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy" (11 a.m. Jan. 20 and 1:30 p.m. Jan. 22), a documentary featuring interviews with Stephen Sondheim, Mel Brooks and Harold Prince.
Amid the cornucopia of Jewish dramas — Holocaust-centric and not — is the documentary "Return of the Violin" (7 p.m. Jan. 25 and 5:30 p.m. Jan. 26), tracking the 1936 theft of a 1731 Stradivarius violin once owned by Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra founder Bronislaw Huberman. The violin was found in 1985 covered in shoe polish. (Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell, who will perform March 16 at the Kravis, bought the violin for $4 million and plays it in concert.)
Also screening is "Reporting on the Times" (11 a.m. Jan. 25 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 23), a documentary on how the Jewish-owned New York Times buried more than 1,000 articles about the Holocaust during World War II; the Israeli Academy Award-winning "The Ballad of the Weeping Spring" (5 p.m. Jan. 19 and 11 a.m. Jan. 26), an Israel-filmed, deliberately melodramatic feature about a band's reunion concert in a cave, shot in a style that pays homage to spaghetti westerns and "Seven Samurai."
Visiting the festival for post-screening Q and As for his documentary "Sukkah City" (3:30 p.m. Jan. 20 and 4:45 p.m. Jan. 21) is Brooklyn director Jason Hutt, last at the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival for his 2007 documentary "Orthodox Stance." Hutt, whose in-laws live in Wellington, captures the eponymous architectural competition held at Union Square in 2010, in which renowned designers reinterpreted the sukkah, fragile, temporary dwellings used by the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt.
The sukkah buildswere a confluence of 4,000-year-old Jewish liturgy and slick, modern architecture, and featured designs of shacks covered in logs, glass and homeless signs.
"It attracted incredible jurors — big-time people in the world of academia — to put together sukkah with all these ridiculous parameters," says Hutt, 36. "Some of them are hilarious, like the only animal you can't use for the sukkah wall is an elephant, and you can't put the sukkah on top of a camel. The Talmud is a funny book. The whole intention of the project is to rediscover why the sukkah is meaningful to people today."
The Donald M. Ephraim Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival
When: Jan. 16-Jan. 26
Where: Kravis Center for the Performing Arts (701 Okeechobee Blvd.), Cohen Pavilion (701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach), Cobb Theatres Downtown 16 Theatre (11701 Lake Victoria Gardens, No. 1201, Palm Beach Gardens), Frank Theatres CineBowl and Grille (9025 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach), Norton Museum of Art (1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach)
Cost: $10-$12 general admission ($20 opening night); Mornings at 11 five-film pass $40; $118-$136 festival pass
Contact: 877-318.0071 or PalmBeachJewishFilm.org