The movies aren't what they used to be. With the advent of Netflix and other streaming services, movie theaters have struggled to bring in patrons. Film festivals, too, have had to grapple with the lure of the home theater. Fortunately for residents of Sun City West, though, Beth Emeth Congregation’s West Valley Jewish Film Festival, now in its 14th year, continues to thrive.
“This is a long-standing tradition out here for the West Valley,” said Rabbi Tracee Rosen of Beth Emeth. “We're out in a place that doesn’t always have a lot of connection with Jewish life, especially out on the east side. The film festival started as a way to bring Jewish content and Jewish culture to the West Valley.”
The festival begins Saturday, Jan. 26, and runs through Monday, Jan. 28 at Beth Emeth Congregation. Each night will show a different film for members of the congregation and the general community.
The chairwoman of the film festival, Irene Lehrer, selected this year’s movies, which she thinks are enjoyable and tell powerful, uplifting Jewish stories. She focused on finding films that show different sides to Jewish storytelling. This is her third year as the chairwoman.
“I try to pick movies that are interesting, meaningful and that people other than Jews will appreciate,” Lehrer said. “We’re in the middle of two churches [Sun City West Christian Church and Advent Episcopal Church] and we have a very wonderful working relationship with both of them. So with their help, we get wonderful participation from the entire community to attend this social event that’s for everyone to enjoy.”
All local neighbors are generally invited to the festival, and space usually fills up for each night of the screenings.
The first of the three films is “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” which screens Jan. 26. A documentary released in February 2018, the film focuses on the Israeli baseball team of 2017. After years of defeat, Israel was able to compete in the World Baseball Classic international tournament by bringing in many American Jewish Major League Baseball players.
The film follows the team’s journey to the tournament, detailing each player’s relationship with Israel and their religion, and how the players became a sensation in Israel. “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” was distributed by Menemsha Films and won several film awards, including best documentary at the 2018 Gold Coast International Film Festival in North Hempstead, New York.
The second film, “Three Identical Strangers,” will play on Jan. 27. It is also a documentary that was released in 2018. Unlike “Heading Home,” “Three Identical Strangers tells a darker story. The film follows triplets who were separated at birth by a Jewish adoption agency working with a researcher on the issue of nurture versus nature. The boys reunited as young adults in college, having never known they had brothers, let alone identical ones. The film details the negative impact the experiment had on them and their families.
The triplets were intentionally placed into different families of various economic backgrounds as a part of a psychological experiment. One was placed in a blue-collar family, one was in a middle-class family and one was raised by a wealthy family at the direction of late psychologist Peter Neubauer, who worked in tandem with the adoption agency.
The final film, which will be screened on Monday, Jan. 28, is “The Samuel Project.” The only one of the three films that is not a documentary, the independent drama stars Hal Linden and is about a Holocaust survivor living in San Diego. Linden’s character, Samuel, discovers that his grandson wants to use Samuel’s life as the basis for a high school animation project.
“The Samuel Project” is a personal favorite of Lehrer’s and she considers it one of the best films the festival has ever shown. She thought that the film did a great job of showing the complexities of intergenerational communication and was very heartwarming.
Along with showing the three films, Beth Emeth Congregation will serve food and refreshments at each screening. The meals will match the film’s themes or setting. For example, during the screening of “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” there will be kosher hot dogs, soda and big, soft pretzels for the audience to enjoy.
Rosen said that the festival offers an alternate way for congregants to express their Judaism.
“Not everybody chooses to express their Jewish identity by coming to services or celebrating the High Holidays,” Rosen said. “But Jews seeing movies that reflect different aspects of being Jewish here in the United States is not only an educational experience, but a real bonding experience for people.”
It also gives seniors in Sun City West who may not be physically able to venture to other parts of the Valley a chance to partake in the events.
“So many of our congregants and members of our community are with walkers that it’s difficult for them to get around,” Lehrer said. “This is a local event that’s easy for them to access, and it’s an entertaining evening out.” JN
Tickets for all three movies can be purchased for $27. The cost to attend individual movies is $10 in advance and $12 at the door. For more information, visit bethemethaz.org.