In “Eldorado,” Switzerland’s official submission for the best-documentary Oscar, Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof traveled to meet the immigrants from all over the world attempting to enter the supposed safe haven of northern Europe. Inspired by his own childhood memories of an Italian immigrant named Giovanna who came to live with his family during World War II, Imhoof documented the individual, wrenching stories of the people fleeing war, poverty and persecution as they emerged from boats, trains, trucks, and – for those whose journeys ended in disaster – the freezing water, and let them speak. With the ultimately tragic ending of Giovanna’s story playing out over the present-day portraits of other immigrants coping with the fear, bureaucracy, bigotry and daily peril of being people without a country, “Eldorado” cuts through the anti-immigrant rhetoric all too common in the current political discourse and gives each person a face, and a voice.
Focusing as it does on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, which continues to draw thousands upon thousands of asylum-seekers primarily from Africa and the Middle East, “Eldorado” might seem an incongruous choice for the Maine Jewish Film Festival. As executive director Barbara Merson put it, the Swiss film contains “very minimal Jewish content.” But, for anyone familiar with the festival’s now 22-year history, “Eldorado’s” story of compassion and testimony makes perfect sense, indeed.
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“Our mission is to show films based on the global Jewish experience,” explained Merson, “and the immigrant experience is very much part of the global Jewish experience, something that resonates, especially with people in Maine. Our goal is to reach as diverse an audience as possible.” As with many of this year’s films, the screening of “Eldorado” will be accompanied by a talk and a Q&A from an expert in the film’s subject – in this case, Lana Alman, board member for the immigrant aid organization HIAS, a group whose own history reflects on that of “Eldorado” and the Maine Jewish Film Fesitval.
Merson notes that HIAS’ humanitarian activities in support of immigrant settlement across the globe were brought to unwanted international attention in the wake of the deadly anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh last October. The killer, responsible for the deaths of 11 people in the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, was a white supremacist who specifically cited the synagogue’s association with HIAS as a motivating factor. That HIAS shortened its name from the original Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is indicative, Merson says, of how that group has drawn upon Jews’ centuries-long history with such violence and bigotry to evolve into a wider kinship with immigrants, no matter from where they originate. As Merson sums up HIAS’ mission: “We do this not because they’re Jewish, but because were Jewish.”
The theme of the immigrant experience echoes through many of the films in this year’s festical, which runs from Saturday through March 17. Merson points to “Itzhak,” the documentary portrait of immigrant-turned-musical-legend Itzhak Perlman as another example, while this year’s family film brings the eye-opening origin of a beloved children’s classic to the fore. ” ‘Paddington’s’ original author, Michael Bond, modeled Paddington Bear on the Jewish refugee children during WWII who he saw coming into British railway stations with tags pinned on their coats,” explained Merson, “which is a really good connection to make.”
For the Maine Jewish Film Festival, the immigrant story is an ongoing one whose current use as a cudgel by nativist bigots, both in America and across the world, has only reheated the same old political prejudices and talking points. In “Eldorado,” Merson says that the festival’s mission is encapsulated in how filmmaker Imhoof drew intimately personal parallels between the injustice and pain he himself witnessed and that of immigrants whose plight he documents today. For the film festival, that’s all part of the mission, too, and one that she hopes audiences at this year’s festival will take away.
“The filmmaker felt that he had to go and see,” said Merson. “He captures amazing footage of the refugees coming in on the rafts and the boats, swimming to the rescue ships, being processed and interviewed. It’s an incredibly gripping film and, in some ways, a very difficult one, but it gives a sense of the reality of the situation by allowing the actual people to tell their stories.”
“Eldorado” – showing at 7:30 p.m. March 14 at Bates College’s Olin arts center in Lewiston, 12:30 p.m. March 16 at the Portland Museum of Art and 2 p.m. March 17 at Bangor Mall Cinemas – is just one of the many eclectic, fascinating and entertaining films being shown as part of this 22nd Maine Jewish Film Festival. For tickets, showtimes and descriptions of the films, go to mjff.org.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday-Saturday: “Genesis 2.0.” Visually stunning, thought-provoking documentary about the people mining the furthest reaches of Siberia for mammoth tusks which Korean scientists are attempting to use to clone the wooly behemoths back into existence. What could possibly go wrong?
Monday, March 11: “Double Indemnity.” Space and Portland’s classic film preservationists at Kinonik continue their Kinonoir series (second Monday of every month) with Billy Wilder’s nigh-perfect 1944 noir about a sharpie insurance salesman, Fred McMurray, a sharper dame, the never-better Barbara Stanwyck, and MacMurray’s investigator pal Edward G. Robinson, who, unfortunately for the two scheming lovers, might just be the sharpest of all. Presented on 16mm film.