JFilm brings independent Jewish films to Pittsburgh
FilmFestival runs May 2-12

JFilm brings independent Jewish films to Pittsburgh

16 films from around the world will be shown in Pittsburgh or will be able to be accessed virtually

Actor Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka on the set of the film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Actor Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka on the set of the film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

JFilm, the region’s long-standing Jewish film festival, opens its 31st season on May 2 with the Pennsylvania premiere of “Left Alone Rhapsody: The Musical Memoir of Pianist John Bayless,” a documentary chronicling the Leonard Bernstein prodigy’s rise from a young musician to an internationally renowned recording artist and his struggle post-stroke to reinvent himself.

The screening, which will be held at the Carnegie Music Hall at 7 p.m., will be followed by a live performance by John Bayless, a Q&A with Bayless and the film’s director Stewart M. Schulman, and a dessert reception.

The festival, which runs through May 12, features 15 additional films from around the world, six of which can be accessed virtually. In addition to the Carnegie Music Hall, other in-person venues include The Oaks Theater in Oakmont and the CMU – McConomy Auditorium. The festival will include a Mother’s Day screening and scholar-led Film Schmooze discussions.

As in years past, the festival’s films come from around the world, including Israel, Germany, Italy, France and Canada.

Reviews of four films follow. For a complete schedule of events and trailers, visit filmpittsburgh.org.

Still from “The Catskills” (Photo courtesy of Film Pittsburgh)

“The Catskills”

May 7, The Oaks Theater
A Film Schmooze will follow the screening

Once upon a time (more precisely, from the 1920s to the 1980s), the mountains were said to be made of sour cream, there were more varieties of herring than you could count, and the likes of Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Joan Rivers nightly regaled the Jewish audiences who had come to the country for rest, relaxation and, in many cases, romance.

In “The Catskills,” an 85-minute documentary directed by Lex Gillespie, viewers are transported through the lens of nostalgia to a seemingly enchanted time and place, when hordes of Jews escaping the heat and bustle of New York City summers spent the season at famed and glorious resort hotels or in the bungalow colonies that were mid-century America’s answer to the shtetl.

Through archival footage and interviews with those who were there, Gillespie paints a vivid picture of a charmed era of Jewish history. At a time when Jews were not admitted into many mainstream resorts and hotels, the Catskills were part haven, part playground for their Jewish visitors, who built a community where they could unwind, socialize — and eat.

Former waiters (usually young Jewish men working the summer to pay their way through college), a dance instructor, resort guests and even Eleanor Bergstein — the author of the Catskills-inspired “Dirty Dancing” — reflect on the magic of summers spent bonding with other Jewish families in an idyllic yet homogenous setting.

Food features prominently in the film, as do the comedians who performed in what’s been dubbed the “Borsht Belt” or the “Sour Cream Sierras.” Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Lenny Bruce and Danny Kaye, for starters. Noteworthy careers were launched there.

And “thousands of matches were made in the Catskills,” we’re told. Parents, concerned about the prospect of intermarriage, were proactive in helping to find suitable partners for their children during their summer sojourns. When hearing of a waiter’s intention to go to medical school, a father’s response was “So, have you met my daughter?”

The glory days of the grand resorts — Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s the Concord — were over by 1986 due, in part, to other vacation spots finally opening their doors to Jews. While the end to that type of discrimination was a welcome development, viewers of “The Catskills” can’t help but wonder what we lost in return.

For those who experienced summers in the “Yiddish Alps,” “The Catskills” will be an entertaining romp down memory lane. And for those who never made it there, the film will be a pleasing peek into a moment of Jewish communal splendor.

Toby Tabachnick

Still from “Haute Couture” (Photo courtesy of Film Pittsburgh)

“Haute Couture”
May 2-12, Virtual

Fairy godmothers have a way of making dresses magical. Sometimes with a wand, more often through stitching, but a talented few possess the gift of breathing life into garments. Esther, head seamstress at Dior on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, is no Merryweather but has spent her life mastering the craft.

Shortly before retirement, Esther encounters Jade, a wayward Parisian youth cloaked in numerous responsibilities. With her needling personality, Esther pushes Jade to shed some burdens and intern at the celebrated studio.

A series of encounters and spats with largely foreseeable results prove that silk, tulle and boucle aren’t the only malleable items in a workshop: Coarse personalities can soften, mild manners can harden, and unlikely pairings can be both pleasing and fine.
Viewers may find Sylvie Ohayon’s “Haute Couture” predictable, but if the outcome is beauty, how bothersome is the lack of surprise?

Adam Reinherz

Still from “The Pitch: Patient Safety’s Next Generation” (Photo courtesy of Film Pittsburgh

“The Pitch: Patient Safety’s Next Generation”

May 2-12, Virtual

Executive produced by Pittsburgh’s Jewish Healthcare Foundation “The Pitch: Patient Safety’s Next Generation” brings to the fore the imperative of incorporating advanced technology to minimize medical errors.

The statistics are alarming, according to medical experts interviewed in this compelling documentary: One in four patients admitted to a U.S. hospital will suffer from a medical error.

Despite so many modern innovations in medicine, the film underscores, those applied to patient safety are “few and far between.”

Many of the harms suffered by patients are, in fact, preventable. If the proper technology could be applied, not only could countless lives be saved, but billions of dollars could be saved as well.

Machine learning and data mining could, and should, be employed to identify patterns of disease spread in hospitals. That technology already exists and is widely used in other industries, including gaming.

Virtual reality instead of anesthesia, for example, is offered as an effective possibility that comes with little risk.

Among the film’s highlights is following the journey of a young innovator in California set on using machine learning to prevent pregnancy complications. His passion is palpable.

The latest work from Chicago-based filmmaker Mike Eisenberg, the film not only examines the technology and its potential to save lives but also delves into the resistance to change prevalent in the health care industry.

“The Pitch” will appeal to viewers in the medical field as well as anyone who has been hospitalized or loves someone who has.

Ultimately, the film leaves viewers with optimism that change for the better is just around the corner, if only those within the industrial medical complex are open to collaboration with innovators from other fields.

Toby Tabachnick

“Remembering Gene Wilder”
May 4, McConomy Auditorium

“Remembering Gene Wilder” opens with perhaps the most iconic moment of the actor’s impressive career.
Dressed in purple, facing the camera and singing as the less-than-centered candy factory owner Willy Wonka, Wilder intones, “Come with me and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination.”

For nearly four decades, the actor, writer and director was able to keep that promise, creating a world of imagination for those who came along for the trip on television, in films and on the stage.
“Remembering Gene Wilder,” though, is more than a simple documentary detailing the highs and lows of an artistic career. Instead, it focuses on the relationships Wilder found in his life — personal and professional.

Time is spent exploring Wilder’s connection to Mel Brooks — including extended dives into “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” — which the artist called “The happiest I’ve been on a film” — and “Blazing Saddles.” His relationships with Richard Pryor and his wife Gilda Radner are also featured.

The documentary examines Wilder’s relationship with his mother and the effects of a heart attack she suffered when he was still a young child. Of particular interest, in archival video the actor recounts that he was told not to upset his mother because it might kill her, and shares stories about his time working in a United States Army psychiatric hospital after being drafted in 1956.

Wilder, whom the film identifies as more “spiritual than religious,” and his connection to Judaism, is also explored.

And, of course, there’s plenty of discussion about “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Told through first-person accounts by Wilder, friends and fellow actors, including Eric McCormack, Alan Alda, Carol Kane, Rain Pryor, Harry Connick Jr. and, of course, Mel Brooks, “Remembering Gene Wilder” is essential viewing for anyone interested in the life and method of one of the most talented actors from the second half of the 20th century. PJC

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