Broadening appeal: Annual Altoona Jewish film festival continues to grow

When the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation began the Altoona International Jewish Film Festival 15 years ago, it was an unusual step for a group in a small market.

But the event’s success has brought along a number of followers.

“Since we started, there have been a number of other film festivals that have started in other small cities across the country,” said Bill Wallen, executive director at the GAJF. “For the longest time, we were among or were the smallest [Jewish] film festival.”

This year’s festival – to be held on consecutive Thursdays from Feb. 20 through March 13 at Penn State Altoona’s Devorris Downtown Center in downtown Altoona – continues the event’s growth, not just among the region’s Jewish community, but beyond.

“Each year, we seem to be getting new people,” Wallen said. “About 50 percent of our attendance is from the general community, and 50 percent is from the Jewish community. So we’re pretty happy about that.”

And the festival committee’s job of choosing films gets a bit easier each year, Wallen said.

“We also find that we have more films to choose from than ever before – not just United States-made films, but from all over the world,” he said. “When we first started, it was difficult to find films that had Jewish content that were recent films.”

And the names on the schedule get a bit more familiar each year, with Woody Allen’s iconic “Annie Hall” being screened at this year’s festival.

“We’ve found that when we do a classic film – like this year, we’re doing Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ -?that seems to bring in our largest crowd,” Wallen said. “So we’ll now more often do vintage, or classic films.”

This year’s slate of films includes:

* 7:15 p.m. Feb. 20 – “The Other Son,” PG-13, 2012, Hebrew and French, with English subtitles (105 minutes)

This drama follows an Israeli man named Joseph as he prepares to join the Israeli army. During routine tests, he discovers that he is not his parents’ biological son, but that he was switched at birth with the son of a Palestinian family. This revelation turns both families upside-down.

“It’s the story of each boy finding his actual parents and considering his actual culture and religion,” Wallen said.

The film will be introduced by Valerie Metzler, a member of the festival committee.

* 7:15 p.m. Feb. 27 – “Annie Hall,” PG, 1977, English (93 minutes)

Allen’s classic romantic comedy follows a pair of neurotic New Yorkers struggling through their relationship – sarcastic, pessimistic comedian Alvy (Allen) and flighty, clumsy singer and photographer Annie (Diane Keaton).

The film won four Academy Awards: Best Picture; Best Actress for Keaton; Best Director for Allen; and Best Original Screenplay for Allen and Marshall Brickman.

“‘Annie Hall’ – like other good, classic comedies – is still funny now,” Wallen said. “So when the committee looked at it, they really wanted to show it.”

The film fits a demand from the festival’s office.

“We’ve found from the audience that they like us to do one comedy or light film each year,” Wallen said. “It’s hard to get good comedies, so the classics that we go for are the lighter ones.”

“Annie Hall” will be introduced by Penn State Altoona professor Jerry Zolten.

* 7:15 p.m. March 6 – “Defiant Requiem,” not rated, 2012, English (85 minutes)

This documentary by director Doug Shultz, narrated by actress Bebe Neuwirth, tells the story of the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. Terezin was a staging area before shipping Jewish prisoners to the death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz in Poland.

“As an opportunity to escape from the rigors of the camp, and the forced labor … they used music to distract from their daily lives there,” Wallen said.

The movie explores the role that the arts had in giving the prisoners some relief, but focuses mostly on a large choir of prisoners that formed.

“They developed a choir there, and they ended up singing for the Nazis Verdi’s ‘Requiem,'” Wallen said. “They confronted [the Nazis] in Latin, basically saying to them, ‘You guys are going to get it in the end. You’re going to be punished in Hell.'”

* 7:15 p.m. March 13 – “Hava Nagila: The Movie,” not rated, 2012, English (75 minutes)

This documentary follows the growth of the song “Hava Nagila” through history.

“This is on the history of that song – probably the best known Hebrew song in the rest of the world,” Wallen said. “Because that song is very popular at Jewish events.”

The song is known worldwide and has been recorded by many artists, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“Mainstream American singers have added it into albums that they’ve done; Probably the best known version of it is by Harry Belafonte,” Wallen said.

Each night of the film festival will feature a dinner held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at The Heritage Discovery Center, next door to the theater. The dinner costs $15 per person.

Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.