A slight drizzle and a breeze marked the opening night of the 19th-annual Miami Jewish Film Festival at the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center last Thursday. The South Florida winter weather created a bit of chaos for the festival organizers. Thirteen minutes behind schedule, Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar, interim executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, opened the night with an announcement for the owner of a blue Subaru Outback, who left the car at the valet without the keys. Beyond that, there wasn't a single glitch to report during the screening of the festival’s opening-night film, Remember, directed by Canadian director Atom Egoyan and starring Christopher Plummer.
Finally, Mark Kravitz, the festival’s committee chair, officially kicked off the festivities. He spoke of the unique diversity of South Florida's Jewish community, saying, "Indeed, we are a virtual international film festival ourselves."
Kravitz went on to introduce festival director Igor Shteyrenberg and noted how sponsors helped fund his trip to Israel last year, where he made important connections to bring some of that country's biggest films to premiere at MJFF. “We want our festival to be a bridge from Israel to the Americas," Kravitz added.
Shteyrenberg was quick to “recognize our humor” and began by saying, "Thanks so much for joining us and enduring this brutal, brutal storm,” which got a laugh from the packed house. After a few words about the festival's growing success, he introduced a special surprise guest for the night, Remember screenwriter Benjamin August. In his brief intro, August refrained from revealing too much about the movie, which audiences soon learned is a suspense-thriller about an elderly man with dementia who slips out of his nursing home to hunt down an alleged Nazi war criminal living out his last days in freedom in America.
August did say he wrote the script while teaching English in Hanoi, where he began wondering what surviving Nazi war criminals might be up to right now. He said it wasn’t an easy script to get produced. When he suggested a film starring a 90-year-old man, his manager told him that no one makes such movies. His manager passed it along to some producers, and August, a first-time feature screenwriter, had some encouraging meetings. Still, he said, all he heard was “no one makes these movies.” It wasn’t until a Hungarian producer agreed to do it that Plummer became attached and then Egoyan agreed to direct it.
The screenwriter joined the audience for the screening and afterward drew comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. “I thought it was a great reaction,” August said after the screening. “You can hear the surprises, the tension. I was sitting in the middle of a group, and people were laughing at the right parts, and then there was definitely tension in certain scenes that we wanted... I feel like this is the demographic we are going for.”
The New Jersey-based screenwriter said he was honored by the invitation to the Miami Jewish Film Festival. “This is the third-largest Jewish film festival,” he said. “Usually, the writer doesn’t get to come — no one cares about the writer,” he added with a laugh. “So for me it’s a great honor. This is a great film festival. I’m just happy to be here.”
Outside the theater, a solo electric guitarist played jazz and bossa nova instrumentals in the lobby, and there was a coffee bar plus rows and rows of bite-size desserts as well as crepes made to order and fresh chocolate lava cakes. Everything was kosher, of course. Avis Neiman was debating the movie with Ken Silver, saying the film was like Otto Preminger directed by O. Henry. “I think it could have happened,” she said, “because I know people who are demented, and sometimes they have moments of clarity.”
Silver was a bit more skeptical. “The plot twist... was a little bit of a reach because everything would have had to have gone his way,” he said.
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As the evening wound down and people started heading out by 10:15, Shteyrenberg reflected on the opening night of the third festival he has directed. “We're immensely proud, and we feel it's an overwhelming success,” he said. “We're so delighted by the audience response, moved by this powerful and poignant story. We excitedly look forward to sharing many more discoveries.”
Miami Jewish Film Festival
Continues through January 28 at various venues across Miami-Dade County. Visit www.miamijewishfilmfestival.net for details.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.