Jewish Film Festival will begin Thursday

The Altoona International Jewish Film Festival will begin its 14th year of sharing the Jewish faith Thursday with its first of four movies.

The movies will be shown on Thursday evenings through March 14 at the Penn State Altoona Devorris Downtown Center in Altoona. A dinner, not included with the price of the movie, is held beforehand at the Heritage Discovery Center, located next door.

When planning for the annual event, the film festival committee is thinking more than one year ahead, said Bill Wallen, festival coordinator and executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.

The committee tries to strike a balance to both educate and entertain, offering selections of documentaries and films, made internationally and in the United States and between classics and newer films, Wallen said.

The festival, which is a partnership between Penn State Altoona, The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art and The Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, started as a way to offer the Altoona area culturally stimulating activities during the winter, Wallen said.

Fifty percent of the film audiences are not Jewish, he said. People come from as far away as Cresson, State College and Huntingdon to enjoy the festival that offers opportunities to educate people about the Jewish faith, including its values, and the artistry of Jewish filmmakers, he said.

“We try to think of the audience that come to our movies and what would appeal to them,” Wallen said. “The audiences have grown, and we’ve added in the dinners, which are popular. We’ve built up a following, and people look forward to it each year from the Jewish and the general community.”

Committee Chair Dr. Len Zimmerman also said the support comes from all over, but wishes they had more success with their efforts to get students interested, though.

The first movie in the series on opening night is the 2011, 114-minute thriller “The Debt,” starring Helen Mirren.

In the movie, which was made in the United States, Mirren plays one of three retired Mossad secret agents whose mission it was to track down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel in East Berlin.

The original version was made in Israel and was spoken in Hebrew, Zimmerman said. He saw both films, and the American version stays true to the original.

On Feb. 28, the movie selection is the 2012, 87-minute documentary “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story,” which was made in the United States and Israel,

The documentary follows two story arcs – the Entebbe hijack and rescue and the life story of soldier Jonathan Netanyahu, the brother of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On March 7, the movie is the 2012, 90-minute documentary “Nicky’s Family,” made in the Czech Republic. The story is about Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who organized the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children before World War II. Winton, who was 102 years old at the time of the documentary, did not speak about these events until his wife found a suitcase in the attic containing documents and transport plans 50 years later.

The documentary is “fascinating,” Zimmerman said, noting the story of what Winton did came to light in recent years.

Wallen said there is a movement to get Winton nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a petition will get circulated at the film.

“It isn’t just what he did for the children back in the Holocaust. It’s the inspiration that he’s provided for a whole new generation to reach out and help others,” he said.

On March 14, the final film in the series is the 1980 United States-made movie, “The Jazz Singer,” starring Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier.

The 115-minute film tells the story of a fifth-generation cantor, played by Diamond, who wants to break family tradition and make a career in popular music.

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto can be reached at 949-7030.