Washington Jewish Film Fest and Jewish Music Fest collide at JxJ

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the JxJ Festival (Jason Fraley)

For 29 years, the Washington Jewish Film Festival has curated the best of Jewish cinema, while the Washington Jewish Music Festival has championed Jewish tunes for the past 20 years.

This year, the two collide into one giant celebration at the first-ever “JxJ” from May 8-26.

“It’s two art forms slamming together, multiplying and hopefully refracting into something deeper than each individual art form,” festival director Ilya Tovbis told WTOP. “We were running these two concurrent festivals for quite a while. … We thought that by putting the two forms together we could get something more resonate and have cross-conversations.”

Presented by Edlavitch DCJCC, this year’s films will mostly screen at E Street Cinema, AFI Silver Theatre and Bethesda Row, while the music events will mostly take place at City Winery.

“It’s really grown from small festivals that were community driven, just a couple of events, a couple hundred people, both some of the first festivals of their kind,” Tovbis said. “They’ve since grown to have a really large local, and I’d like to think national, profile where they’ve become some of the more prestigious exhibitions of film and music in the Jewish world.”

Live music includes the roots of Jewlia Eisenberg and Jeremiah Lockwood, the punk-rock accordion of Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, the retro R&B of Gilo Yalo, the acoustics of The Guy Mendilow Ensemble & Beyond the Pale, the Brazilian choro music of Tio Chorinho, the Arabic pop and African funk of Yemen Blues & Nani, and a “queer-inspired take on klezmer music” with Isle of Klezbos. The lattermost will also perform the cine-concert “Music in Yiddish Cinema,” while Alicia Svigals will perform a live score to the silent classic “The Ancient Law.”

Such music-movie crossovers are all featured in the cleverly named category “Beats x J.”

“This is films looking at music, whether documentary or otherwise, taking a deep dive into the cultural impact of musicians through time,” Tovbis said. “You have everyone from Leonard Cohen with a brilliant new film that was at Sundance about ‘Marianne’ from the famous song ‘So Long Marianne.’ You also have musicals by Bertolt Brecht, Chilly Gonzales and so forth.”

Music also factors heavily into the plot of the opening night screening of “Redemption.”

“[It] won Best Actor at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for Moshe Folkenflick and also won for Best Music at the Jerusalem Film Festival,” Tovbis said. “It’s a tale that really maps one individual’s struggle with his personal faith. This is a former rock man who lives a very secular, hard, sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and alcohol lifestyle and has since reformed and gone on to be very religious and is harkening back to his days. Eventually, he reunites with his band to help out his daughter, who’s been sick, and this is the only way to bring money into the family.”

Also, don’t miss the spotlight film “Skin,” a feature-film expansion of an Oscar-winning short.

“This is one of the more star-studded affairs starring Jamie Bell by director Guy Nattiv, who just won Israel’s first Oscar since 1978 for the short film of the same name,” Tovbis said. “This is the full-length film that just U.S. premiered at Tribeca. We’ll be the second festival to play it in the U.S. They expanded the concept, so it’s with all different actors and they definitely fleshed out the story, but the kernel of it was in the short that just won at this year’s Oscars.”

Political junkies should check out “King Bibi” on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Bibi just won another contentious and hard-fought election,” Tovbis said. “This film by Dan Shadur, an Israeli filmmaker, is quite brilliant in that it is critical in the editorial sense, but rather than have the film speak critically of Bibi, he lets Bibi speak critically to himself. A lot of it is just Netanyahu’s media performances, so it shows his growth as a charismatic political figure, it shows him talking about something one day, then saying the reverse the next when it’s convenient for him. It’s a brilliant take [about] the new politics that has come to the fore.”

You can also check out the U.S. premiere of the documentary “From Slavery to Freedom.”

“It is the definitive story of Natan Sharansky, who is a very well known and respected leader of the Refuseniks Movement, a human rights activist in Russia for Soviet Jewry at a time when there was quite a lot of oppression — and he has since gone on to be a politician in Israel,” Tovbis said. “He’ll be with us … in conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Ron Dermer.”

If you’re into science fiction, you might enjoy the Israeli dystopian drama “Autonomies.”

“Some people may be familiar with ‘Shtisel,’ a runaway hit on Netflix,” Tovbis said. “Yehonatan Indursky is the maker of that series and this is his new work, just a stupendous work of sci-fi fiction. The basic story is that Israel is divided in two halves by a wall … between the secular community and the religious Haredi or Hasidic communities. You have underworld figures ferreting black-market goods … then the black marketeer is caught bringing a young girl across. … It is well worth the watch and played Lincoln Center at its U.S. world premiere.”

If you’re more into sports, there’s Aviva Kempner’s doc “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”

“It centers on Moe Berg,” Tovbis said. “Moe Berg was featured in a narrative film about two years ago that was very Hollywoodized, and while it was a fine film in its own right, I think this goes a lot further into the intricacies of his life. Moe Berg lived a life as a pretty well known baseball player who wore his Judaism on his sleeve, but was more secretly the forerunner for the OSS and had a lot to do with why the Axis powers never developed an atomic weapon.”

There’s also plenty of socially-conscious options in the category “Rated LGBTQ.”

“This is our sidebar of queer cinema [partnering] with the Goethe Institute and Kino-Q, which is a look back at the Stonewall anniversary from a German-American perspective, including ‘Different From the Others’ and ‘The Einstein of Sex.’ We also have the Israeli film ‘A Family in Transition’ about a man transitioning — and his wife and family being quite supportive.”

Finally, don’t miss the closing night film “The Tobacconist” starring Bruno Ganz (“Downfall”).

“This is honoring Bruno Ganz’s final role on screen he ever did,” Tovbis said. “It’s quite a leading role playing Sigmund Freud. He’s in his aging years in Vienna as the Nazis are taking over and as he’s coaching up this young man in matters of love and life — as Freud might do.”

For anything that doesn’t fit neatly into the film or music boxes, there’s a third hybrid “Studio” category. This includes a live theater event at Arena Stage with Zalmen Mlotek, who’s working with Joel Grey to stage “Fiddler of the Roof” in Yiddish on 42nd Street in New York City.

“He’s going to come with a couple of actors, do a sneak peek of some of the songs,” Tovbis said. “They’re going to talk about the creative underpinnings: Why now? Why in Yiddish?”

No matter your taste, there’s no shortage of options.

“It’s really an incredible opportunity,” Tovbis said. “Almost none of these events have ever happened in D.C. before and many may not ever again. Many are U.S. premieres, many with artists in tow, so it’s just an incredible way to connect with artists. There’s something like 22 languages represented, so it’s really an international mix of culture in both film and music.”

Find more details on the festival website. Hear our full conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with festival director Ilya Tovbis (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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