The Little Fest that Could 

Contra Costa's Jewish Film Festival comes of age

The Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival has been established for seven years now, but is apparently still searching for an identity. "We bask in her shadow," says CCIJFF director Riva Gambert, referring to Janis Plotkin's better-known San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It's the perennial story of the suburbs vs. the city, but with an ambitious roster of films, plenty of guest appearances by artists and commentators, and five venues for audiences to choose from, this year's fest -- a presentation of the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center and the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay -- looks ready for the big time. "We decided that in Contra Costa County there were very few theaters showing foreign films," says Gambert. "Most people just went to Berkeley or San Francisco. So it was a time for us to show foreign films -- with Jewish themes -- from all over the world. But they have to stand on their own legs as films."

For the most part, these films do indeed stand up. You'll find complete coverage of this week's Contra Costa Jewish Film Fest screenings in the "One-Night Stands" movie guide, but there are a few especially promising items. British writer-director Ben Hopkins' Simon Magus, which got overlooked in its commercial release last year, is a fable-like story of the village idiot in a shtetl in old Poland who's wiser than he seems. It shows Tuesday, March 5 at the Brenden Concord 14 theatres (2:30 and 7:30 p.m.), followed by a discussion with Rabbi Dan Goldblatt. Jacky and Lisa Comforty's Holocaust documentary The Optimists (1:00 p.m. Sunday at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center) is also highly touted.

"The Fighter is wonderful," enthuses Gambert. It's the documentary account of a journey through Europe by two seventy-year-old men retracing their painful pasts, and discovering profound differences instead of sugarcoated commonalities. The film's Los Angeles-based director, Amir Bar-Lev, will appear in person when The Fighter plays Sunday morning (10:30 a.m.) at the Contra Costa JCC. But this fest holds other treasures. To learn more, log onto www.jfed.org

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