The 2022 Boston Jewish Film Festival runs in person from Nov. 2-9, and virtually from Nov. 10-13. This is the first of two sets of reviews for select film screening from Nov. 2-6.

Opening Night: “Karaoke” (Israel)

Wednesday, Nov. 2, 7 p.m. at Coolidge Corner Theater

קריוקיניסים אלוני 6צילום: הדס פרוש
“Karaoke” (Promotional still)

Meir and Tova live in a high-rise in Tel Aviv. Their grown daughters left home a while ago. Over the years, the couple, well into their sixties, realizes they have little in common. This could have been a well-worn trope—a long marriage streaked with boredom and discontent. But writer and director Moshe Rosenthal’s new film, “Karaoke,” takes an unexpected turn when Meir and Tova meet Itzik, who recently moved into their building’s penthouse.

The world belongs to Itzik—so much so that he parks his fancy car wherever he pleases in the garage, blocking Meir’s car. Meir knows it must be the new neighbor and goes upstairs to complain. Tacked to the door, Meir sees a note of apology from Itzik for inconveniencing them and inviting his neighbors to a party.

The popular Israeli actor, Lior Ashkenazi, plays Itzik, a talent agent who throws raucous karaoke parties. During their visit, Tova belts out tune after tune as Meir sits dumbfounded. Things become even more awkward when Itzik asks the couple if they’re swingers. And so it begins that these three characters each hold up a corner of what becomes an odd and confusing romantic triangle.

Drugs and sex fuel Itzik’s parties, and life becomes more complicated for Meir when he’s pushed to sing at another, larger party at the penthouse. “Three, two, one,” says an enthusiastic robotic voice, and Meir reluctantly begins to sing. As the song progresses, he wows the crowd, and Itzik connects him to casting agents specializing in commercials.

“Karaoke” has a pitchfork moment when hostile neighbors encircle Itzik demanding that his parties end by 11 o’clock. But there is also an intimate moment between Itzik and Meir. Itzik is not just challenging what he sees as Meir’s small life; he’s teaching him about free love and sexual intimacy. The ending is not a neat one, but it is satisfying, projecting hope and love.

Fresh Flix: “Women of Virtue” (France)

Thursday, Nov. 3, 7 p.m. at Brattle Theater

“Women of Virtue” (Promotional still)

This short film, an entry in the Flesh Flix Short Film Competition, begins with a wig fitting. Shaina is getting married, which has her nine-year-old sister, Etel, inquisitive about what happens at a mikveh (ritual bath). Etel’s curiosity intensifies when she menstruates. In early puberty, Etel and her mother consult a doctor who suggests suppressing the young girl’s puberty until she is older. However, Etel’s mother refuses to allow her to take the medication.

In this ultra-Orthodox world, the family laws of purity dictate when and how a married couple can have sex. Etel’s older brother gives her a mini-lesson on the mikveh as it relates to what it means to be pure and impure. The notion frightens Etel, who doesn’t understand why something her body does naturally renders her an outcast at age nine.

Etel is among the party of women accompanying Shaina to the mikveh before her wedding. The purification process is shown up to the minutest detail as the bride is scrubbed from head to toe. Nothing is overlooked. There must be no barrier between the person immersing and the mikveh’s holy waters. Etel is a silent witness to menstruation as a stigma, designating a woman as pure or impure.

Although she’s only nine, she struggles with the concept of a purified body. In the end, Etel dives into the mikveh to acknowledge her body’s wonders. 

Fresh Flix: “Minyan Duty” (U.S.)

Thursday, Nov. 3, 7 p.m. at Brattle Theater

“Minyan Duty” (Promotional still)

This 15-minute short begins with two sisters attending a weekday evening synagogue service to say the Kaddish for their recently deceased mother. The older sister has a husband, children and a mortgage and is determined to mourn her mother by reciting the prayer every day for eleven months—the requisite time to mourn a parent. The younger sister lives a complicated single life in Manhattan and considers mourning rituals stodgy, particularly when it comes to saying the Kaddish regularly.

A story about a minyan inevitably portrays the dilemma of finding a tenth person so mourners can recite the Kaddish publicly. The sisters get into a shouting match over the long wait for a tenth person. Finally, the younger sister takes matters into her own hands and flags down a tenth person. She finds Ray to make a minyan. Ray is an amiable Black man wandering the neighborhood in his jalopy, looking for the address where he is supposed to deliver food. He gets an offer of $50 to stand in as minyan attendee number ten.

There are many things out of halachic (lawful according to Jewish law) bounds in having Ray count in a minyan—he is not Jewish and cannot complete a minyan. But that concern slips away as Ray stands with the sisters fumbling through the transliteration of the Kaddish. The ending is surprising and poignant. I’ll only say that a minor transgression can be good and even necessary for the soul. 


Centerpiece: “Remember This” (U.S.)

Sunday, Nov. 6, 2:30 p.m. at Museum of Fine Arts – Remus Auditorium 

This screening is followed by an in-person conversation with actor David Strathairn, director and co-writer Derek Goldman, director and cinematographer Jeff Hutchen, and producer Eva Anisko.

Still image from 'Remember This' filmPhoto/Jeff Hutchens
“Remember This” (Photo: Jeff Hutchens)

David Strathairn turns in a remarkable solo performance as Jan Karski, a Catholic Polish diplomat during World War II. The Polish underground recruited Karski to report to its government in exile about the unprecedented suffering of the Jews in the ghettos and their destruction in concentration camps. He travels to Auschwitz, where “Jews are dying in agony.” He tries to compartmentalize his feelings and report the facts: “I understand my mission. I am not supposed to have any feelings. I am a camera, a tape recorder.” Indeed, what Karski witnesses at Auschwitz initially numbs him, but he soon breaks down. “I have to leave the camp,” he says. “I disrobe and wash maniacally to rub out what I saw.”

On a bare-bones stage with only two chairs and a wooden table, Strathairn summons the anguish and intensity of Karski’s bleak journey through Nazi-occupied Poland. The lighting evokes a gray cloudy day. The darkness of the horror that is the Holocaust descends on the stage. Strathairn’s Karski has a kind of physicality as he acts out the savage beatings he endured, where, at one point, he tells the audience his teeth were scattered on the floor.

After an arduous escape to England, which included crossing the Pyrenees on foot, Karski meets with Szmul Zygielbojm in London, the Jewish Labor Bund’s representative in the parliament of Poland’s government-in-exile. Shortly after he meets with Karski, Zygielbojm receives word that the Warsaw Ghetto has fallen and dies by suicide.

Karski tried to convey to England’s foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, that “if there was no intervention the Jews will not exist.” Next, he took his case to Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, in Washington, D.C. Frankfurter, a Jew, did not believe Karski’s account of what was happening to the Jews in Poland: “I know humanity; I know men. Impossible.” But as Karski points out to his audience, “He did not think I was lying; he could not accept what was happening.”

“Remember this,” says Straithairn, directly to the camera, “the Jews of Poland are dying.”

When Karski meets with President Roosevelt, he is struck by FDR’s gravitas and bearing as a world leader: “I see a Lord of humanity. All hopes were placed on President Roosevelt.” Yet after Karski told FDR what he saw in Poland, Roosevelt only offered that justice and freedom would prevail for the Jewish people in Poland. Karski speaks directly to the camera as he asserts: “People don’t want to know. The Jews are insignificant and left to die. This will haunt humanity to the end of time. It haunts me, and I want it to be so.”

The real Karski comes across as a haunted man when Claude Lanzmann interviews him for his opus, “Shoah.” Karski, known for his elegance and impeccable manners, is wearing his customary suit and tie. At the time of the interview, he was a professor at Georgetown University. Yet he fled the set as he tried to recount what happened to the Jews of Poland.

In “Remember This,” Karski shares eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust as an unprecedented rupture in history. “Every day,” says Karski, “[the world] becomes more and more fractured, toxic, seemingly out of control. We are being torn apart by immense gulfs of selfishness, distrust, fear, hatred, indifference, denial.”

“Alegría” (Spain)

Sunday, Nov. 6, 7 p.m. at West Newton Cinema

_USETHIS_1600 ALEGRIA ©JulioVergne
“Alegria” (Promotional still)

Melilla is a Spanish town bordering the northern coast of Morocco. Jews, Muslims and Christians have peacefully coexisted in the town for centuries. The film is also a kind of travelogue featuring Melilla. Against the town’s historied backdrop are the complex multicultural and familial relationships of one Sephardic family. At the center of this family is Alegría, the prickly matriarch. Alegría, a physician, is on a sabbatical from her hospital and has returned to Melilla from Mexico. In Mexico, she raised her daughter, Sara, alone. Much to Alegría’s bitter disappointment, Sara lives on a religious kibbutz with her family, estranged from her mother, who proclaims she will never set foot in Israel.

Alegría is a rulebreaker—defiant about all things Jewish in her life. She bucks tradition by gluing rather than nailing mezuzot to the doors in her backroom. Alegría waves off the Orthodox requirement that only men can affix a mezuzah. She keeps her Judaism under wraps, acting like a 21st-century version of a converso. The mezuzot are only present on the doors in the house’s backrooms.

Alegría’s current dilemma is hosting her niece Yael’s Orthodox wedding to a local man. Reminded of her daughter’s strict Jewish observance, she scorns the religious trappings of Yael’s orthodoxy. In this mix of women orbiting Alegría is Dunia, her young Muslim housekeeper. Alegría mentors Dunia and encourages her to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. Dunia is in many respects, the daughter she wanted. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship—a beneficial relationship until Alegría overrides Dunia’s request not to cross the border for Yael’s pre-wedding party. As she predicted, Dunia is detained on the return trip to Spain and blames Alegría.

For reasons that are not clear, Yael’s mother barely helps with the wedding preparations, leaving Alegría to take in Yael as another surrogate daughter. But Alegría’s love for her niece is complicated. On the one hand, she forgets to make Yael’s appointment for her immersion in the mikveh. Yet Alegría’s softer side comes into focus when she finds a way to sneak her niece into the mikveh after hours. It’s another defiant act grounded in love.

Two airport scenes are pivots in the story. In the first, Alegría meets her family at the airport and learns that Sara is not with them. It’s a quietly devastating moment when she understands that Sara is not coming to the wedding. The second scene in the airport finds Alegría being pre-screened for her flight to Israel. El Al security asks its standard question if she is Jewish. There is a long pause, and we never hear her answer.

See the full list of screenings