Representing the vastness of the Jewish experience, the festival kicks off Saturday night with a story set within the distinctive community of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. Live and Become begins in 1984, with Operation Moses, when 8,000 desperate refugees are airlifted to Israel to face a skeptical reception in the Promised Land. Become follows one of them, a little boy with two big secrets that are not divulged until after he comes of age at the conclusion of this moving epic of adaptation. Though also directed by Romanian-French filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu, Train of Life recounts a very different though no less endearing tale; it is an unlikely comic fantasy about how an entire shtetl outwits the Nazis and eludes slaughter.
In A Cantor’s Tale, Brooklyn-born, infectiously exuberant Jacob Mendelson offers a personal introduction to the history and continuing vitality of khazzanut, the art of liturgical singing. Another documentary, The Ritchie Boys, conveys the astonishing chronicle, in their own eloquent words, of Jewish fugitives from Nazi Europe who returned, at great risk, as soldiers in American uniforms.
An Israeli film, Metallic Blues, is a devastatingly painful comedy about an odd couple from Tel Aviv who set out to make a quick euro in Germany but learn something along the way about the burdens of history and the saving grace of friendship. In 51 Birch Street, American director Doug Block turns his camera on his own parents and makes unexpected discoveries about the ties that bind a family.
The offering that most resembles a lush old Hollywood romantic drama, A Love to Hide is set in occupied Paris during World War II, when Jews and gays were endangered species. French director Christian Faure crafts an intricate drama of passion and betrayal based on two male lovers’ decision to hide a young Jewish woman from the Gestapo.
Finally, if Robert Altman were Israeli and intent on weaving a tale about Eastern European prostitutes, Thai farmworkers, Filipino caretakers, and native Israeli gangsters, it would be the ironically titled What a Wonderful Place.
To make a long story short — which translates into idiomatic Hebrew as “to speak on one leg” — the San Antonio Jewish Film Festival dashes in on eight strong legs, for a brief but brilliant run.