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Desert Companion

Profile - Joshua Abbey

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Joshua Abbey
Lucky Wenzel

Founder and director, Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival

We sit down to talk with Joshua Abbey about the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival on the same morning that President Trump officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This is purely coincidental, but not even slightly beside the point — whether it’s the shock waves set off by Trump’s announcement or the sharp rise in anti-Semitism among white nationalists, here and in Europe, or the ongoing conflicts in Israel, pretty much everything pertaining to modern Jewishness unfolds in a highly charged national or global context. “Without a doubt,” Abbey says, “this is a particularly pertinent moment to address and explore and discuss these global issues.”

That’s our neat segue to the Jewish Film Festival, because Abbey (who also founded the now defunct CineVegas festival) believes that cinema — “the quintessential modern art, which converges all of the art forms in a potential intellectual discourse” — is ideally suited to engaging 21st-century people in a project of mutual understanding. Sure, he concedes, “most people gravitate toward cinema as an escapist mechanism, to have a reprieve from all the social-political realities.” Nonetheless, popular culture is often how we argue about politics these days, so a slate of films about identity and cultural heritage are perhaps more relevant than ever, and not just to Jews. “It’s a unique opportunity to bring these issues to the fore,” he says.

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Over his 17 years of programming the festival he founded, Abbey has developed three main tranches of content: films that typify trends in worldwide Jewish filmmaking; cinema from Israel; and movies related to the Holocaust. “Now, as always,” he says, “the lessons (of the Holocaust) are universal and need to be reaffirmed and communicated to generation after generation in perpetuity.” There’s an added urgency, too: These are the last few years we’ll have concentration-camp survivors among us. “We need to take advantage of their testimony while we can,” he says.

The full schedule of films, venues, and special guests can be viewed at lvjff.org — even summaries of the highlights are hard to fit into the space we have here. There are major documentaries about individuals, including Sammy Davis Jr., and actress Hedy Lamarr, who, it turned out, was a brilliant inventor; newly restored footage of David Ben-Gurion, “the George Washington of Israel”; scholar of Islam Lesley Hazleton (currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute); and political organizer Heather Booth, “the least-known but most significant grassroots organizer of the 20th century” (who will be at the screening). Also to be screened: a 30-minute documentary by Abbey himself profiling local Holocaust survivor Stephen Nasser.

It’s not all documentaries: 1945 is a Hungarian drama about two Jewish men coming back to a village seeking the return of Jewish properties confiscated by the townspeople during WWII. Look About You follows a fictional family taking a year-long trip through Israel to understand its daily reality.

In each case, filmmakers, subjects, and/or experts will be on hand to talk with audiences, enriching the feedback loop toward Abbey’s goal of increased empathy. “It never ceases to astound me, the lack of receptivity to counter propositions,” he observes. “Why can’t we just take a moment, let our philosophy take a backseat, open our minds, and really listen to a knee-jerk, completely absurd, preposterous opposing position? A film festival gives you that little sliver of a window to do that.”

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A picture taken from the Mount of Olives shows the Old City of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock. President Trump on Wednesday recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, upending decades of U.S. policy and ignoring dire warnings from Arab and Western allies alike.
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