Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, Nov. 7 to 20.

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival: Fall Fest will run a hybrid program in venues around Philadelphia as well as with online screenings. The festival opens with “Wet Dog,” about a teenager hiding his Jewish identity, on November 7, and closes November 20 with “Not Going Quietly,” a documentary about Ady Barkan’s battle with ALS. In between there are features, shorts, and documentaries, as well as a New Media Day. This year’s program also features two worthwhile films with lesbian content.

The fabulous documentary, “The Conductor” (November 8 at 7:00 pm at the Philadelphia Ethical Society) is an affectionate profile of Marin Alsop, the first woman to head a major American symphony orchestra. Alsop, who is a lesbian, was inspired by Leonard Bernstein and wanted to conduct since she was a child. (She would ultimately study under him at Tanglewood). However, when she expressed interest in conducting, she was repeatedly told, “Girls can’t do that.” It only made her determination stronger. As director Bernadette Wegenstein’s inspiring film shows, it is a good thing Alsop persevered. Alsop is not only the (now former) music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), she also conducted the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paolo for eight years. Moreover, she became involved with OrchKids, an afterschool program for Baltimore youths to learn and play music. Alsop’s love of music is infectious. Watching her teach a masterclass to students is one of the film’s many highlights. 

Alsop is tremendously ingratiating as a subject who makes keen observations on breaking the glass ceiling. Not to be deterred from her love of making music, as a young woman, she founded “String Fever,” an all-female string-based swing band. She talks about the importance of this group of women and creating an opportunity as so many doors were closed to her. It is heartbreaking to hear her dreams be deferred time after time. 

“The Conductor” shrewdly addresses gender expectations, and recounts an ugly incident when Alsop was applying to work for the BSO and many of the musicians protested against a female conductor. Moreover, Wegenstein’s film wonders why things have not changed more since Alsop’s success. Thankfully, Alsop’s mentoring and fellowships she has established have helped more female students pursue careers as conductors. 

The film briefly touches on Alsop’s personal life from her childhood with musician parents in New York, to her current life with her spouse Kristin Jurkscheit, who has an amusing anecdote when Alsop is awarded a McArthur “Genius” Grant. But most of this documentary shows Alsop at work, and in these scenes, she is poetry in motion.

“Kiss Me Kosher,” directed by Shirel Peleg.

Writer/director Shirel Peleg’s bright rom-com “Kiss Me Kosher” (available for streaming November 7-14 for PA, NJ, and DE residents) has Shira (Moran Rosenblatt) moving in with her German — yes, German! — girlfriend Maria (Luise Wolfram). When a ring is unexpectedly proffered, the young women become engaged. However, they are reluctant to tell their families the good news. Shira’s grandmother Berta (Rivka Michaeli) is formidable (to put it nicely), and Shira’s accepting family is adjusting to the triple whammy: that Maria is lesbian, a Gentile, and German. In fact, the first question on everyone’s mind is: were Maria’s relatives Nazis?
The humor in “Kiss Me Kosher” is broad, and it plays up stereotypes, but it does generate some of the film’s laughs. When Maria comes to Shabbat dinner, she can’t understand the family’s arguing and heated discussion of political topics. “It’s foreplay,” someone explains. Another bit has Shira’s mother Ora (Irit Kaplan) insisting that Maria eat more (and more). There are also questions Shira’s father Ron (played, oddly enough, by American actor John Carroll Lynch) has about whether Maria will convert so she can carry any grandchildren. 

Peleg includes two subplots which also provide decent payoffs. One involves Shira’s brother, Liam (Eyal Shikratzi), making a documentary about his sister and her fiancé. His camera seems to be on whenever there is an awkward moment, which is often. The other subplot involves a cross-cultural romance between Berta and Ibrahim (Salim Dau), a Palestinian. Berta wants to keep any hint of a relationship with Ibrahim secret, while he would like to see her outside of her apartment. Berta’s double standard adds some friction to her relationship with Shira, but it also provides some meaning about what love is — or should be. 

“Kiss Me Kosher” also introduces Maria’s parents, Petra (Juliane Köhler) and Hans (Bernhard Schütz), who arrive from Germany and pay a visit to a holocaust museum. The film’s sensitivity to Jewish history provides some gravitas to the comedy. But Peleg also features a trio performing various musical numbers (and in different genres) to keep the film bouncy. 

If “Kiss Me Kosher” doesn’t break new ground, it will nevertheless keep viewers amused. 

For tickets and more information, visit https://phillyjfm.org/.

Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, Nov. 4 to 14.

The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival opens November 4 with a screening of the comedy, “Americanish,” at the Asian Arts Initiative. Then for ten days, dozens of features, documentaries, shorts, as well as Q&As will be available to stream online (albeit with some geoblocking). 

The festival will close November 14 with a screening (also at the Asian Arts Initiative) of out gay filmmaker Alex Liu’s illuminating and funny documentary, “A Sexplanation.” Liu’s film provides enlightening discussions on sex education and topics ranging from masturbation and pornography to issues of shame and consent, and ultimately, why and how we need to talk more openly about sex to increase everyone’s comfort and pleasure. 

The festival’s shorts program, “A Queer Time and Place” (available November 4-14 online) is a collection of five films that feature different forms of LGBTQ expression. “Hajun Blooms,” by Jiyoon Kim, is a wordless, stylishly-edited 4-minute short about the title character (Audrey Valcourt) whose same-sex desires are contrasted with themes of guilt and punishment.  

The experimental “F1-100” uses animation and video to tell the story of a transgender Malaysian art student who is temporarily living in the U.S. In poetic voiceovers, they recount their voice on T at 0, 1, 2, and 7 months, to monitor their change. They also discuss the caning, punishment, and imprisonment transgender people experience in Malaysia. There are some poignant observations about how anyone not cisgender has to hide their identity; their existence is negated and denied, but this short is inspiring. 

“Confusion,” directed by Aashuka Aryal

Confusion,” by director Aashuka Aryal, depicts an Indian bride who appreciates her sister-in-law’s help with getting dressed, fixing her heir, and accessorizing. She realizes she has more feelings towards her than her husband and imagines a possible relationship as a way of coping with her unease in her new situation. The film nicely conveys the protagonist’s predicament. 

Likewise, “Identibye,” written and directed by Sajjad Shahhatami, is an excellent Iranian short about a man (AmirHossein Sabbaghan) whose gender expression creates a conflict in his life and marriage. This gorgeously lensed film is full of striking images that capture the emotions of being out of place one minute and embracing one’s identity the next. 

Rounding out the program is “Connection,” about Anton (Jorik Katalbas), a Filipino musician who gets offended by — and eventually attracted to Carl (Jonathan von Mering), a Canadian musician, when the latter plays a variation on Anton’s song. It’s a cute and very short short, but not particularly gay.

Another short featuring queer characters, “Little Sky,” by the nonbinary filmmaker Jess X. Snow, will play in the shorts program “Being (Un)Present: A Father’s Love,” (available November 4-14 online). This accomplished and emotionally affecting short has the drag performer Sky (Wo Chan) befriending Miyo (Kyoko Takenaka), while also grappling with the bitterness they feel toward their father (Fenton Li). This is a touching short film that features a marvelous performance (both on stage and off) by Chan. 

Also screening at the festival is “Tho” (available November 4-14 online) a short that depicts the asexual title character (Heather Muriel Nguyen, who codirected with Jake Villadolid) who becomes empowered following her experiences with various potential romantic partners, including Dylan (Zecakiah Koterba), Leo (Malik Tyler) and Cerise (Michelle Mao). 

Lastly, not available for preview, “See You Then,” (available November 4-14 online) is a feature about Naomi (Lynn Chen) who reconnects years later with Kris (Pooya Moseni), a former girlfriend who has since transitioned. 

For tickets and more information, visit https://tickets.paaff.org/2021/.