The Stowe Jewish Film Festival, now in its fourth year, is "literally and figuratively moving up the mountain." That's according to festival founder and cochair Edee Simon-Israel.
In a literal sense, the festival is switching venues this year from the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe to Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center at the base of Mount Mansfield. Figuratively speaking, Simon-Israel elaborates, the change entails offering moviegoers a better cinematic experience while increasing the event's visibility in the community.
The four-film series opens on Wednesday, July 10, with the Vermont premiere of Reaching for Zion, a documentary that examines the shared beliefs of Rastafari and Judaism. The film follows the spiritual journey of Donisha Prendergast, the granddaughter of reggae legend Bob Marley, as she travels from Jamaica to Israel to explore the Judaic roots of the Rastafarian religion. A Q&A with director Irene Angelico and her husband, Abbey Neidik, who coproduced the film and served as cinematographer, follows the screening.
"The whole idea of the film is that every people deserve a home where they can live in harmony," Angelico says in a phone call from Montréal. "We focus on the dream of Zion as home for the Rastafari and the Jews. For Jews, Zion is in Israel or Jerusalem. And for Rastafari, it's in Africa or Ethiopia."
While the film strives to universalize the concept of Zion for people across the global diaspora, Angelico anticipates that it could be controversial in some quarters.
"I'm expecting a lot of fallout from it, because there's so much anti-Zionism, but the film itself has a light touch in terms of the politics," she says. "It's talking about the idea of Zion and home in terms of music, in terms of a yearning, in terms of people being persecuted and exiled and needing to come home."
The fest continues on July 24 with Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me, a portrait of the multitalented African American entertainer who converted to Judaism following a near-fatal car accident in 1954. The Sam Pollard-directed documentary, which previously screened at the Green Mountain Film Festival and Vermont International Film Festival, traces Davis' life from his childhood roots on the vaudeville stage to his fame as a member of the Frank Sinatra-led Rat Pack and his controversial friendship with president Richard Nixon.
A different form of presidential controversy is featured in the festival's July 31 offering, Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, a profile of the Hungarian Jewish immigrant whose surname is attached to the most prestigious prize in American journalism. In 1908, president Teddy Roosevelt accused the newspaperman of criminal libel for a story about alleged corruption surrounding a $40 million payment for the construction of the Panama Canal. Following a lengthy legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pulitzer, establishing a key precedent for freedom of the press.
"Ironically, we became more excited about bringing this film to the festival the more that the issue of fake news and making the media the villain became part of our everyday news cycle," Simon-Israel says. "This film talks about fake news in an entirely different period of our history, and it's really interesting."
The festival's closing event, on August 7, is the Vermont premiere of Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montréal. The doc traces the history of the city's Jewish community through a marathon day of heavy noshing at six Jewish eateries. It was codirected by and features Montréal natives Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, the comedy duo best known for the uproarious Yiddish-language web series "YidLife Crisis."
"We're not famous, but we're fame-ish," Elman riffs during a phone conversation from a Los Angeles editing room, where he's cutting the series' latest episode. "We're what I call 'Jew famous.'"
Though Chewdaism has a lighthearted tone, it doesn't shy away from addressing more serious cultural and culinary differences among the city's Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Hasidic Jews. With Elman and Batalion's witty banter front and center, the film in many ways serves as a documentary extension of "YidLife Crisis," which uses irreverent humor to celebrate diversity and promote inclusivity.
"We consider ourselves Canadian comedy peacekeepers, and we export our comedy and our foods and our peace," Elman says, "and we make fun of ourselves in the hope that we can make light of touchier subjects of religion and spirituality."
For Simon-Israel, the festival's varied program fills a necessary gap in the summer-movie options available to residents and vacationers in the greater Stowe area.
"To me, that's one of the most gratifying things about running this, that we're able to bring things to our community that otherwise would not come [here]," she says. "We feel like we're really adding to the cultural fabric of the town with this festival."