An obscure story of refugee resilience in Havana brought to light, a dramatization of a South African lawyer’s fight against apartheid in 1963 and a Mossad agent protecting an asset in a safe house in Hamburg. These films are among the highlights of the National Center for Jewish Film’s 21st Annual Film Festival, which runs May 2-13.

“Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels”

“Cuba's Forgotten Jewels”
“Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” (Courtesy photo)

Growing up, Judy Kreith heard her mother’s exotic stories about Cuba. Marion Kreith was just 14 when she and her family boarded a ship from war-torn Europe to evade the Nazis. Their destination was the tropical paradise of Cuba, where these Jewish refugees knew no one and did not speak a word of Spanish. All told, over 12,000 Jews fleeing Hitler arrived in Cuba from 1933 to 1944.

Their story is encapsulated in a 46-minute documentary directed by Judy Kreith and Robin Truesdale called “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels.” Marion Kreith’s story is just one of the personal accounts in this short film in which history and memory work in tandem to tell the tale of the thriving, albeit temporary, diamond-cutting business those refugees brought to Cuba. The business allowed the refugees to make a living on an island that had limited economic opportunity for them. At the time of their arrival, foreigners were not allowed to have jobs in Cuba. To get around the prohibition, a group of enterprising refugees struck a deal with the Cuban government to employ Cubans as well in their businesses. Marion Kreith was just 15 when she went to work as a diamond cutter.

While the story is fascinating, it is also a counterpoint to the tragic voyage of the St. Louis in 1939. The passengers on the steamship were Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg to Havana in the hopes of escaping the Nazis. However, they were not allowed to disembark in Cuba or the United States. The ship was eventually sent back to Europe, and almost half of the 900 or so passengers perished in the Holocaust.

After the war, many of the European Jewish refugees in Cuba went on to the United States. A few resettled in Europe and others immigrated to Israel. Their departure meant the end of the Jewish diamond-cutting business in Cuba. Thanks to “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels,” this little-known piece of Jewish history from the Holocaust era has been preserved.


“An Act of Defiance”

“An Act of Defiance”
“An Act of Defiance” (Courtesy photo)

The year is 1963 and it is the height of apartheid in South Africa. Ten men are arrested on a farm in Rivonia, accused of conspiring to commit sabotage and violent acts against the government of South Africa. The group is made up of blacks and Jews who are still led by the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Their lawyer is a courageous white Afrikaner named Bram Fischer. Though not as well-known as his famous client Mandela, Fischer was an important figure in the anti-apartheid movement.

An Act of Defiance” is the dramatization of the trial of the Rivonia Ten. Based on the book by Joel Joffe, one of Mandela’s attorneys, the film is a faithful, important recreation of the trial. During that trial Mandela gave his famous “I am prepared to die” speech in which he justified the African National Congress’ ongoing resistance to the apartheid regime. Fischer saved the ANC leaders on trial from being sentenced to death. While he defended these men, Fischer was also an underground figure in the anti-apartheid movement.

Although Fischer’s successful defense of the men unfolds against a backdrop of white privilege that Fischer and his family enjoyed, it does not take away from the fact that the Fischer family played a key role in dismantling apartheid. The film’s directors and producers worked closely with the Fischer family and some of the Rivonia defendants, which accounts for the film’s sharp historical accuracy.


“Shelter” (Courtesy photo)

Shelter” takes the thriller genre into personal, even feminist, territories. Naomi, a Mossad agent, is in a self-imposed retirement when her former handler offers her an easy assignment. She is to guard a Lebanese informer in a safe house in Germany; Mona has undergone plastic surgery to change her identity. The grief-stricken Naomi is hesitant to go back to work after her husband, another Mossad agent, had taken a bullet for her while they were both on assignment in Africa.

The film is a loose adaptation of Israeli writer Shulamit Hareven’s short story “The Link.” The two lead actors could not be more different. Mona has turned on her own husband, a Hezbollah commander, to give the Israelis valuable information. She saunters about the apartment in a short red silk robe and exudes sexiness even with her face in bandages. Naomi arrives in Hamburg packing a gun, dressed in plain clothes and wearing a cross around her neck to complete her cover. While the men in this film move the thriller elements of the plot forward, it is the women who give this movie a shade of complexity.

In their isolation, Naomi and Mona come to flirt, bond and even conflate their identities. Mona teaches Naomi to apply makeup, and at one point they play dress-up with a blonde wig. But the two ultimately come together over their maternal woes. Mona has left behind her 8-year-old son in Lebanon, and Naomi is desperate to conceive a child on her own through in-vitro fertilization.

While much of “Shelter” takes place in a couple of rooms, the intimacy and danger that comes with loving someone are the most intriguing elements of this suspenseful film.

Find more information and show times for the National Center for Jewish Film’s 21st Annual Film Festival here.