Black Jews Documentary and More at the Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival

Director Laurence Gavron in conversation with Michael Brenner and the audience about her documentary, “Black Jews: The Roots of the Olive Tree” / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The house was packed at E Street Cinema for tonight’s showing of Black Jews: The Roots of the Olive Tree, a documentary about some unusual Jewish communities. Director Laurence Gavron traveled to Cameroon to meet Serge Etélé and his congregation. She also spoke with Rabbi Cappers Funnye, Michelle Obama’s cousin and head of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.

It may be because I was sitting so close to the screen, but I really appreciated the cinematography and editing; the staging of interviewees against detailed backdrops, the wide, busy shots of crowds in Jerusalem or Cameroon, the archival footage from the U.S. Black Jewish community. Gavron and Michael Brenner from American University’s Center for Israel Studies, fielded questions afterwards about the growing global phenomenon of Africans turning from Christianity to Judaism, and how Cameroon’s community became so comfortable with mainstream Jewish rituals (largely through the internet.) I couldn’t help but smile as I witnessed these people read from the Torah on Passover while a rooster crowed in the background, or sing and dance to songs with which I was familiar, on the dusty, orange streets of a country halfway across the world.

I couldn’t just contain myself to one movie this festival, of course; I also made time for the intricately shot Song of Songs, which featured vinyl recordings of period Jewish music to underlay a story about early 20th century Ukrainian shtetl life; and Tales of a Serial Monogamist, a quirky dramedy set in artsy modern-day Toronto about a Jewish lesbian with commitment issues.

And although the first two showings (including Natalie Portman herself in attendance) are sold out, there may still be time to grab tix to the final airing of her debut directing/screenwriting gig of the Amos Oz memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The movie will wrap up the Jewish film festival, this Sunday, 9:45 pm at AFI Silver Theater. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Check out my past coverage of this film festival under the “Annual Events” tab.