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The New York Jewish Film Festival Turns 25

Among the featured films is a documentary about the works of Chantal Akerman, Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, and a 20th anniversary screening of ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’

Beth Kissileff
January 12, 2016
Chantal Akerman. Wikimedia
Chantal Akerman. Wikimedia

Over the span of its 25-year history, the New York Jewish Film Festival has presented more than 675 films from 43 countries. This year, from January 13-26, the NYJFF, in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, will feature 38 films and shorts from 12 different countries, with 21 of them having their world, U.S. and/or New York premiere. Perhaps one of the most anticipated among them is Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness, a cinematic adaptation of Amos Oz’s celebrated 2002 memoir of the same name. (Portman plays the role of Oz’s mother, Fania, and reviews for the film from showings in Cannes and Toronto are mixed.) Portman’s film will close the festival on January 26.

Past and present both play roles at the festival. Benya Krik, a 1926 Soviet film based on real-life gangster Mishka “Mike the Jap” Vinnitsky, and inspired by Isaac Babel’s book Benya Krik, The Gangster, and Other Stories, will be shown, along with the New York premiere of Natasha, a film based on Russian-Canadian writer David Bezmogis’s book Natasha and Other Stories (Bezmogis himself directs).

Another older film that will be screened, part of the NYJFF’s “Retrospective” series, on January 18 is director Michael Haneke’s The Castle (1997), an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel of the same name. Another notable film includes Rabin, the Last Day, Israeli director Amos Gitai’s controversial new movie about days surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995. It will have a U.S. premiere on January 16.

And there’s Carvalho’s Journey, a documentary about an observant Sephardic Jew who accompanied explorer John C. Fremont as the photographer on his 1853 Fifth Westward Expedition, a 2400-mile journey from New York to California, which should offer an interesting lens on cultural interaction. Another documentary, Projections of America, by director Peter Miller, tells the story of 26 propaganda pieces commissioned by the American government to show what life was like in the U.S. during WWII—”stories of cowboys and oilmen, farmers and window washers, immigrants and schoolchildren, capturing both the optimism and the messiness of American democracy.”

Finally, there’s a 20th anniversary screening of Welcome to the Dollhouse, and a new must-see a documentary about the late filmmaker Chantal Akerman, called I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, which “dives into the 40-film oeuvre of the Jewish Belgian pioneer.” It premieres on January 20 (and opens at the New York Film Forum in general release on March 30).

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at