Heading Home full of striking images

Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs through Dec. 2

Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, Kay Meek Arts Centre, Nov. 24 and 25. Visit vjff.org for showtimes.

So, three rabbis and a mascot sit down to watch a baseball game. No, really.

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That image of a trio of Jewish scholars and the mascot – Mensch on a Bench – is one of the first and most striking images in a documentary that chronicles Team Israel during the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel is one of five films set to be screened at the Kay Meek Centre this weekend.

“We’re just looking for really interesting stories . . . that resonate with anyone,” explains Robert Albanese, executive director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre. “We kind of steer clear of overt political views one way or the other.”

While not overt, politics seeps into Heading Home even before the team climbs aboard a plane donated by casino billionaire, newspaper owner and Trump donor Sheldon Adelson.

Faced with the task of recruiting players who can run, throw and hit – and are also Jewish – Team Israel general manager Peter Kurtz is faced with an odd version of the question of Jewish identity.

To qualify for the squad, you need to have at least one Jewish grandparent. That definition, Kurtz notes, was “also the Nazi rule of who was a Jew in Nazi Germany.”

Like Walter Matthau trying to fill out the roster for the Bad News Bears, Kurtz scouts the major leagues. The challenge, he explains, is “finding the guys without the Jewish names.”

One player comes to the team’s attention after a scout scans Facebook and notices the slugger’s mother looks Jewish. (This turned out to be a case where data on Facebook was reliable.)

After one broadcaster dubs them: “The most impressive Jewish baseball team ever assembled,” the boys of summer hop on a private plane and makes the journey to Israel. The country, we are told, has only one baseball diamond.

But while Israel might have been ambivalent about baseball, the baseball players are awed by Israel.

“One thing you think about when playing for Israel,” says former New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis, “a lot of people don’t like Jewish people. I mean, forever,” he adds.

The history of persecution and the modern-day prejudice suffered by Jewish people is addressed, as is the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Using baseball metaphors, an Israel historian who refers to himself as a “fanatical St. Louis Cardinals fan,” addresses the team about previous efforts at peace in the region. Those attempts, he says, were swings for the fences that ended as strikeouts. In terms of achieving peace, what we need now are some singles and doubles, he offers.

The documentary was picked from more than 200 movies, Albanese notes.

“I stopped counting this year at 220,” he says.

A professional photographer by trade, Albanese previously ran a repertory theatre in Montreal and worked as general manager for Cineplex Odeon.

“You can say I’ve lived my life in the dark,” he says with a chuckle.

While initially reluctant to take a role with the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, he eventually accepted the gig in 2010.

“I decided, ‘Oh, what the heck.’ I had always wanted to curate again,” he says. “I loved getting back to picking films.”

His selections for 2018 also include The Cousin, a moody, comedic and paranoid tale centring on a left-leaning Israeli actor, a Palestinian handyman in his employ, and the ramifications of an incendiary accusation.

Now marking its 30th anniversary, the festival includes 32 films from 14 countries.

“Netflix has changed that landscape but so far it’s still OK,” Albanese says, discussing the challenge of securing movies amid negotiations over distribution deals.

The festival is an effort to give moviegoers a sense of community, he says.

Once confined to a single theatre, the festival has expanded across Metro Vancouver. It’s a trend Albanese is trying to turn into a tradition.

“We still attract over 100 people,” he says. “So I figure we’re doing better than most mainstream cinemas.”

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