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Fifth edition of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival opened

"We don't select -- we Choose!"
by Alex Deleon

The fifth edition of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival opened a six day run on Saturday, May 8, at the classy Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills with a very off-beat film from Israel, "A Matter of Size", about Hebrew speaking Sumo wrestlers (!) and an hour long Gala stars-of-yesteryear studded reception in the lobby preceding the screening. The film was exceptional and the array of celebrities at the reception included France N(g)uyen, the biggest Asian Hollywood star (French Vietnamese) ever, still incredibly beautiful with a crown of white hair at age 71, Stella Stevens, a popular sexy star of sixties second rank pictures, same vintage, once a co-star with Elvis Pressley and still looking good and ready to work, and former Boxing heavyweight champion, Ken Norton --famous as one of the few boxers ever to defeat Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali). Not recognizing Norton out of the ring and four decades older I thought he was maybe a famous black actor until I was enlightened as to the identity of the man in a floppy hat surrounded by autograph hounds and picture takers. In Hollywood you don't have to be a movie star to add oomph to a gala opening.

Given that there are now more Jewish film festivals, world-wide, than you can shake a stick at (78 hits on Google at last count and that's not the whole story), and given that there are only so many films on explicitly Jewish themes made each year, one cannot help posing the famous Passover question, "What makes this Jewish Film Festival different from all the other Jewish film festivals going on all year long, somewhere or other?"

A partial answer is provided by festival director Hilary Helstein with Mantra-like repetition -- "Our films are not selected, they are Chosen!" - Whether this fine semantic distinction refers to insider connections that other festivals don't have, or to divine intercession in the matter of Revelation of the Creme de la creme of the films available, is a moot question. There is no question, however, that this year's opening film is a knockout and a winner regardless of which axiom of choice one chooses to select. "A Matter of Size" (Hebrew title, "Sipur Gadol" = 'A BIG Story') is basically a feel-good love story about two people, Herzl and Zehava, who don't feel very good about themselves because they are exceptionally fat, but eventually find ways of coming to terms with their obesity.

This could be called a gimmick film --the gimmick being Jewish Sumo wrestlers in Israel -- a pretty wild idea to start with --but it has so much else going for it that it transcends the gimmickry to become a thoughtful, heart-warming picture. What is most unusual is that all the main actors, except for the Hebrew-speaking Japanese Sumo coach -- are actually quite fat and far from glamorous -- but are all very good actors and instantly engage our feelings for them. The oversize hero, Herzl, has a giant complex about his obesity, but in Sumo where fatness is prized, he finds a sense of worth. His girlfriend has her own weight problems and complexes, but through Herzl's unconditional devotion also comes to accept herself as is. Ultimately this is a film about self-acceptance in the face of Massive obstacles --and Sumo happens to be the vehicle to that end. Interestingly, other than the fact that the film takes place in Israel, there is nothing particularly Jewish about it. It could take place anywhere -- that happens to have a Sushi restaurant run by a man who happens to be a retired Sumo referee... Gimmick-shmimmick -- a winner with elements of Rocky and Karate Kid deftly tossed together with a healthy helping of schmalz. Written and directed in tandem by Erez Tadmor and Sharon Maymon --both of whom were present for a lively Q & A after the show. The production values are cutting-edge world class, indicating that Israeli film is no longer a provincial cottage industry for a captive audience, but a growing industry with international outreach.

The second part of the question above -- what makes this festival more than a little different, is the location. Los Angeles is, after all, the Shtetl of the Stars and the homeland of the entertainment industry.
It is therefore much easier to assemble a lineup of film celebs (not necessarily Jewish) to add oomph and aura to the proceedings here than it would be, say, in Boston, Philadelphia or Melbourne, Australia.
Another presence at the party was actress Jane Kean who played Trixie opposite Comedian Art Carney in the legendary fifties TV show, "The Honeymooners" starring Jackie Gleason. Actress France N. debuted in Hollywood as a nineteen year old French speaking Asiatic nymph in "South Pacific" (1958) and quickly eclipsed other Asian starlets like Nancy Kwan to become the biggest Asian leading lady since Anna May Wong (of the silents and early talkies). She had a brief well-publicized affair with actor Marlon Brando and later married one of her co-stars, actor Robert Culp. She apparently had some problems with her Vietnamese heritage, possibly, because her heyday in Hollywood more or less coincided with the highly unpopular Vietnamese War -- and dropped the 'g' from her obviously Vietnamese surname. Today France NUYEN claims to be straight French from Marseilles, and no ifs-ands-or-buts about it. Mme. France keeps very busy with off-screen community activities, but would certainly still be an asset to another big screen production. She was definitely a visual asset at the gala party. Stella Stevens, same vintage as Nuyen, has aged gracefully and could still play a sexy grandma. Maybe we'll see her up there again sometime soon.

The overall film lineup of about 25 films is divided into categories by theme:
Conflicts and issues;(4 films, including "Holy Rollers", about Hassidim employed as smugglers of the drug known as "ecstasy"),Tradition and Identity; 3 evenings including "The Klezmatics" a documentary following the evolution of one of the most important such bands, History and Legacy; 11 films,("Berlin '36", A German doc about Jewish athletes in the Nazi Olympics of 1936, "Bride Flight", a kind of Jewish Version of the Amelia Earhart story, but made in the Netherlands ) and Inspiration ("A Matter of Size", "The Yankles" a comedy about a Yeshiva baseball team), The main venues are scattered from Beverly Hills and Westwood to Encino in the Valley to provide maximum accessibility to the scattered Jewish community.

Actress Stella Stevens (Born Mississipppi, 1938) was one of the Hollywood celebrities in attendance at the Beverly Hills opening gala for the Fifth Los Angeles Jewish film festival. Ms. Stevens confided over wine and pretzels that Elvis in one of his early screen roles "Girls! Girls! Girls!", was not exactly a gentleman off the set and tried to break into her Hawaiian hotel room after hours, smashed, with more drinks in hand. Needless to say she slammed the door in his nonplussed face.


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