“I really wanted to choose films that were showing something new about the queer experience,” says Yael Luttwak, artistic director of JxJ, the Jewish annual film and music festival and year-round programming at the Edlavitch DCJCC.
“It was very important for me to show audiences something they haven’t seen before, and they can’t see it unless they come to our festival. So I was really kind of disciplined about the choices.”
This year’s JxJ festival slate includes three carrying the label “Rated LGBTQ.” That includes Concerned Citizen, “about a gay couple who are raising their child in a gentrifying neighborhood. In this case, it’s in Tel Aviv, Israel, but it could be anywhere.” Variety described Israeli filmmaker Idan Haguel’s narrative feature as a “satirical parable on the insidious ways in which privilege can unleash the prejudice within.” (5/15, EDCJCC; 5/17, Bethesda Row Cinema)
The other two LGBTQ films are documentaries, starting with Queen of the Deuce, Valerie Kontakos’s profile of Chelly Wilson, who was a doyenne of Times Square’s once-infamous 42nd Street in the decades before it became Disneyfied.
“Wilson was a badass queer grandmother who ran basically adult movie theaters in New York, but has this amazing Holocaust history,” says Luttwak. “It’s just such an edgy, cool doc that I don’t know why other people didn’t snatch it up right away. It was at Doc NYC and I just jumped on it. So that’s a film you can’t see anywhere else.” (5/16, EDCJCC; 5/18, Bethesda)
The other queer documentary is Seven Years of Absalon, which also ranks as one of Luttwak’s three top picks of films not to miss this year. The documentary didn’t yet have a distributor back when they were making selections, despite having won the Jury Award at its premiere at the 2022 Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival.
“I think it got lost in the pandemic,” Luttwak says. “And to be able to bring that to audiences is super-gratifying.”
A product of well-known Israeli filmmaker David Ofek, Seven Years of Absalon focuses on Meir Eshel, who became a sensation in the international art world in the early 1990s, years after he left his native Israel for Paris and adopted the mononym Absalon.
“Within seven years he became this world-renowned installation artist, and then died tragically of AIDS. We meet him when his family has to kind of decide what to do with one of his most famous pieces — if it should go to MoMA or stay in Israel.” (5/17, EDCJCC; 5/20, Cinema Arts Theatre, Fairfax).
This year’s JxJ is easily the biggest and broadest since 2019, and also the first since 2020 to run without virtual screenings.
“We are definitely back since the pandemic,” says Luttwak, who signed on last September to head up the annual festival as well as the year-round programming of weekly film screenings and monthly concerts. All told, the 2023 festival offers 50 in-person screenings of 30 individual films at venues throughout the region, including the EDCJCC’s Goldman Theater, Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema, and Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, a new presenting JxJ venue that Luttwak calls “a really cool art house.”
In addition to 10 film-related talks and panel discussions, the lineup also offers six concerts featuring musical acts from all over the world and in genres ranging from jazz to pop to bluegrass.
“We certainly have artists coming that are queer and also differently abled as well. Through the musical acts that we’re bringing, we are also trying to show diversity and inclusion” — and all concerts are priced at only $18.
“You just can’t see this kind of music of this caliber [at] such an affordable price,” Luttwak says. “We think it’s important that it’s accessible to everyone to be able to enjoy live music.”
Among the musical highlights, Luttwak calls out two Israeli acts: Atempo Trio, a modern jazz act making their U.S. debut through JxJ (5/14, EDCJCC), and the Shalva Band, a “differently abled pop band,” all alumni of the music therapy program of Israeli’s Shalva National Institute (5/13, EDCJCC). A third highlight is “Strathmore @ JxJ,” a revue featuring several Jewish composers and songwriters, all current or former participants of Strathmore’s prestigious and selective Artists in Residence (AIR) program (5/15, EDCJCC).
After Seven Years of Absalon, Luttwak cites Israeli feature Paris Boutique as another highlight this year, although that Closing Night film is already sold out (5/21, EDCJCC). A filmmaker herself known for documentaries including A Slim Peace and Guest House, who has also produced films and digital clips for the United States Holocaust Museum, Luttwak also singles out Schächten (5/20, EDCJCC; 5/21, Cinema Arts) as a top pick from this year’s festival. The thriller by Austrian filmmaker Thomas Roth, who will also participate in post-screening talks at the festival, is “about a man who’s trying to avenge a Nazi. And it honestly has you on the edge of your seat the whole time.”
JxJ runs Thursday, May 11 through Sunday, May 21, at various venues, including the Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DCJCC (1529 16th St. NW), Bethesda Row Cinema (7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda), and Cinema Arts Theatre (9650 Main St., Fairfax). Visit www.jxjdc.org or call 202-777-3210.
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