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The Las Vegas Jewish Film Fest rolls out another solid series

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Agata Trzebuchowska in the somber Ida, a highlight of this year’s Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival.

After 13 years, the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival has established some reliable themes in the movies it showcases, but festival director Joshua Abbey always finds new ways to approach the same topics. At this year’s festival, there were films about the Holocaust and films about Israel’s political struggles, but the best movies looked at those issues in surprising and unique ways.

The best narrative film in the festival was the closer, Ida, from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski. The haunting and evocative story about a Polish nun in the 1960s discovering her Jewish heritage boasts stunning black and white cinematography and moving lead performances. Pawlikowski addresses the legacy of the Holocaust while telling a distinctive story, one that also explores religious and national identity. It’s all grounded in two fascinating main characters, whose personal struggles are the film’s real focus.

On the documentary side, the highlight of the festival was Lewis Cohen’s Jews and Money, which explores the ingrained stereotype about wealthy Jews. Cohen looks at the subject through the prism of a controversial kidnapping and murder case in Paris, effectively integrating historical and modern-day material and presenting a variety of perspectives on the issues he raises. Cohen was one of two filmmakers who showed up to do a Q&A via Skype, which was a little awkward but at least allowed for a more vibrant post-film discussion.

With its 11 screenings spread out over more than two weeks, the LVJFF doesn’t function like a traditional film festival, so it was encouraging to see more filmmakers (including Gregory Peck’s daughter Cecilia, director of documentary Brave Miss World) in attendance, even virtually. Thanks to Abbey’s partnerships with local synagogues and Jewish organizations, festival turnout was as strong as ever (for the lone screening at the Century South Point, Abbey had to open up a second theater to accommodate the entire crowd). It may not be a traditional film festival, but the LVJFF remains one of the best local showcases for non-mainstream films.

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