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The Stories We Choose to Tell at the Boulder Jewish Film Festival Espouse Harmony

Music serves as a bridge of understanding between two cultures in the Boulder Jewish Film Festival’s opening and closing night films.

Serving as perfect bookends to a festival devoted to the harmonizing power of the arts, our opening and closing night films are musical celebrations that fete a surprising cross-cultural alliance.

We begin our seventh year on Thursday, March 7 with “It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Story,” a dizzying celebration of American jazz in the ‘40s -‘60s. We end on Sunday, March 17 with “The Mamboniks,” a rousing tribute to the Latin music explosion simultaneously taking place in America. Jews play an important supporting role in jazz and mambo, contributing to their popularity in unexpected ways.

The best opening and closing night films inspire pride, project the most positive Jewish values, hold a mirror to the Jewish experience to reveal a reflection that astonishes us.

This rare kind of film makes us feel good about who we have been, defines who we are today, and suggests who we might become.

We have, as always, a number of feel-good films among our 17 titles, including “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” and “93Queen.” The bittersweet “Love, Gilda” is sad but funny, and “Who Will Write Our History?” is uplifting despite the tragic story it tells. Our guest tribute filmmaker Raphael Shore is on a mission to foster positive attitudes toward Israel and Judaism, and his intentions are clearly manifested in the three films being presented during his visit.

Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

But our opening and closing night films fall in another category of feel-good. Ecstatic might be a better word, as these two films produce a deep sense of shared humanity. Both films highlight historical moments that reveal the Jewish immigrant experience at its best. Both films pay homage to these immigrants’  contribution to popular culture. In both films we see a generation of Jewish immigrants taking its place in modern America while pursuing social justice for all.

Both films are set at a point in history when Jewish culture collided with that of other minorities and immigrants in America, enriching each other’s lives as they shared a mutual musical passion. These cultural alliances resulted in life-long friendships and enduring affinities. Jazz is alive and well and venerated, and some of our mamboniks are still out on the floor.

The mamboniks are a group of Holocaust survivors and recent immigrants who escaped the horrors of their collective past on the dance floors of Miami, Manhattan, and Havana – and are still dancing today.  These new Americans  rejoiced in their freedom, and expressed their joy of life through the very exotic and erotic music and dance craze then sweeping nation.

The German Jewish refugees who founded Blue Note Records also eagerly adapted to freedom and opportunity in America, but were shocked to arrive and discover that the musicians they venerated were victims of discrimination, just as Jews had been in Nazi Germany. The subject of “Schwing” is the gratitude  surviving jazz musicians of the era still feel for the dignity with which they were treated as artists and Americans.

Why would German writer/director Eric Friedler, head of the German Public Broadcasting Documentary Division, and executive producer Wim Wenders (a giant of German cinema), choose to tell a story of two Germans who achieved their dreams as refugees in America? Is it a barbed reminder of what Germany lost by persecuting Jews? Is it a response to current interest in immigration issues around the world, or is it a reaction to lack of racial harmony – in both Germany and America today?

The film deftly honors jazz and the musicians who created the uniquely American art form, but it also suggest the possibility of cross-cultural collaboration. Overflowing with affection, “Schwing” demonstrates how the arts can inspire the very best in human nature – surely a message for our fractured times.

Schwing” premiered at the Munich and Telluride Film Festivals in early September, followed by a run at DOC NYC in November. Yet to open theatrically in the US, it has garnered acclaim in Germany as well as in such publications such as Rolling Stone: “A unique and intimate look at the most exciting era in jazz, one that changed the world forever…Impressive!”

The Mamboniks” also documents the post-war era when the Latin music craze swept the world’s urban centers, and was embraced with surprising enthusiasm by first and second-generation Jews who did not face discrimination on the dance floor. At a time when America was racially segregated, and anti-Semitism was commonplace, the Cuban-inspired Mambo defiantly held sway.

The Jewish affinity for Latin sounds began in the 1930s, when Jewish Americans got their first taste of Cuban rhythms, rum and romance while vacationing in Havana, “the Paris of the Caribbean.” In the late 1940s, a hot new dance from Havana was on the rise: the mambo. At Manhattan’s Palladium Ballroom, known as “The Home of the Mambo,” Jewish dancers were captivated by the swinging big bands of Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez.

Director Lex Gillespie, who will appear in person at the closing night screening of “The Mamboniks,” is a three-time Peabody Award winner for “Whole Lotta Shakin,” a 10-hour exploration of early rock ‘n roll music; “Let the Good Times Roll,” a 26-hour history of rhythm & blues; and the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s documentary series “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was.”

A musical anthropologist, Gillespie now chronicles the rise and fall of the mambo itself, which was danced coast-to-coast, prominently featured in LIFE magazine, and inspired pop hits like Dean Martin’s “Mambo Italiano.” Marilyn Monroe was an avid dancer.

Like “Schwing,” “The Mamboniks” is a hugely affectionate and infectious work, one that also focuses on the social harmony produced by a shared love of music and dance.

Both life-affirming examinations of popular culture and the harmonizing influence of the arts are created by knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans of their respective genres. The films make us feel good in the most profound way, reminding us that the arts express the highest aspirations of humankind. They suggest that together we can create beautiful music.

For tickets to “It Must Schwing,” click here

For tickets to “The Mamboniks,” click here

Here’s the trailer for “Schwing“:

Here’s the trailer for  “Mamboniks“:

The Mamboniks Trailer from Lex Gillespie on Vimeo.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Founding Director of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, Boulder JCC. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time." She was also Director of Menorah and ACE at the J from 2003 through August, 2019.

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