Reel spotlight to shine on varied cinematic palette
By Carlo Wolff
Films spanning an inspiring sports saga, postwar chicanery, documentaries on key Jewish figures, and ones about probing and transcending the Holocaust are among the offerings coming to five Greater Cleveland venues for the 10th annual Mandel JCC Cleveland Jewish FilmFest.
The festival will feature 29 films from nine countries.
It launched informally on Aug. 24 with a showing of Roger Sherman’s film, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” followed by a sampling of Israeli food and wine, at the Peter B. Lewis Theatre at Cleveland Institute of Art. It unofficially starts on Sept. 8 with a showing of “Fever at Dawn” at Shaker Square Cinemas and concludes on Sept. 18 with “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” actress Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
Among the documentaries: “Sabena Hijacking: My Version,” a recounting of the 1972 hijacking of Sabena flight 571 from Brussels to Tel Aviv by members of the Palestinian organization Black September; “Rabin in His Own Words,” tracking an Israeli hero from childhood through Israel Defense Forces service to two terms as prime minister to his 1995 assassination; and “On the Map,” Dani Menkin’s loving account of how the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team toppled the world champions, sending Israel into a wonderful tizzy.
These show, respectively, at 9:15 p.m. Sept. 10, 5 p.m. Sept. 11 and 4:30 p.m. Sept. 18, all at Cedar Lee Theatre.
Among the fictional films: “Laugh Lines,” an intergenerational movie about how youth can inspire age, showing at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15 following a young professionals happy hour presented in partnership with the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland; “Naked Among Wolves,” a film about hiding a Jewish child from the Nazis at Buchenwald, screening at 1 p.m. Sept. 15; and “Firebirds,” a film about the value and ephemeral nature of identity. All these show at Cedar Lee.
The idea of this year’s festival, as in the nine years past, is to present what it means to be Jewish in as many cinematic ways as possible. The idea, too, is to entertain, enthrall, educate and inspire. Talking to Menkin, writer-director of “On the Map,” suggests that his movie about the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team and its improbable world championship in 1977 fills all those bills.
The executive producer of this fast-paced basketball documentary is Nancy Spielberg. She also was executive producer of “Above and Beyond: Birth of the Israel Air Force,” which screened at the 2014 Mandel JCC Cleveland Jewish FilmFest.
“I’ve been making fiction and documentary films for over 20 years and started my career with sports stories,” Menkin said in an Aug. 11 telephone interview from Los Angeles. An Israeli television executive “started talking to me about there was never a film about ‘On the Map,’ the legendary story,” he recalled.
He began to discover numerous documentary archives at TV stations and in private collections about the journey that took the upstart Israeli team to the top of the European League.
Although it defeated league champions Varese, the Italian team, it was Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory in the second round over CSKA Moscow, the Soviet Red Guards team that actually put it on the map. While the game was played near Brussels – the Soviet Union didn’t recognize Israel and wouldn’t allow the team entry – the fact that it took place at all was a political victory for Israel, a country still reeling from the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
“I always had the basic story for an Israeli audience,” Menkin said, “but that’s when I realized it was an even bigger story for the U.S. audience because everyone knew about the Miracle on Ice (U.S.A. ice hockey’s 4-3 upset of Russia in the 1980 Winter Olympics), but I was surprised how few people knew about the Maccabi Tel Aviv victory over the Russians in the European League.”
Besides finding the right archival material, Menkin’s biggest challenge was making “the film as dramatic as a fiction story, not only a documentary, so that people would be excited and fascinated, just like any sports drama. The second thing was to make the film a drama about countries, much bigger than just a sports story.
“My biggest reward is that people say this is not only a sports story, this is a story of Israel, a historical piece that a lot of people are enthusiastic about,” Menkin said.
Asked to compare the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv victory to the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers NBA championship, Menkin said he largely stopped following the Cleveland team after it fired coach David Blatt, the first Israeli to coach in the league.
“I became attached to the Cavaliers because of David Blatt,” he said, adding he liked Matthew Dellavedova and Kyrie Irving, and respects LeBron James, “even though there were rumors that” James was behind Blatt’s firing.
Menkin gave Blatt “credit for building the team that Tyronn Lue took over,” adding he doesn’t know “if people appreciate what he (Blatt) has done. He’s an incredible coach and another former Maccabi.”
“With all due respect, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory over the Russians in 1977 was bigger than LeBron James and the Cavs beating Golden State.” CV
For film reviews, additional interviews and a look at the history of the Mandel JCC Cleveland Jewish FilmFest, visit Canvas’ sister publication, the Cleveland Jewish News, at cjn.org/filmfest.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 26, 2016.
LEAD IMAGE: Milos, left, and Harry look over letters from Hungarian girls seeking to rediscover their community. PHOTO | Tivoli Film