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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Jewish Film Festival turns 20 and celebrates with new and vintage films

The Spokane Jewish Film Festival turns 20 this year.  (Spokane Jewish Film Festival)

A film festival staple in Eastern Washington is turning 20 this year. The Spokane Jewish Film Festival, which is slated for Saturday through Feb. 5 at various venues and online, is improving as it ages with arguably its finest lineup.

“Remembering Gene Wilder” is a terrific documentary on one of the most underrated comic actors of all time. The film looks at Wilder’s life and focuses on his many star turns. There’s the timid Leo Bloom from Mel Brooks’ brilliant “The Producers.” His underheralded performance with Richard Pryor in “The Silver Streak” and of course his crowning achievement as Willy Wonka in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

“Wilder is the centerpiece of our festival,” Spokane Jewish Film Festival Director Neal Schindler said. “It’s a crowd pleaser that checks all boxes. Wilder was a Jewish icon and a mensch.”

The wildest, if you will, part of the documentary is that Wilder narrates.

“To hear Gene speak in his own words is just lovely,” Schindler said.

“Stay With Us” is a hilarious vehicle, which recalls Woody Allen’s masterwork “Hannah and Her Sisters,” for actor-director Gad Elmaleh, who returns to France after three years in America. Elmaleh tells his parents he’s converting to Catholicism. Mother and Father are less than thrilled and they try to bring their son back to the Jewish faith.

Most Americans don’t know Elmaleh, but the comedy community is down with his work. The witty Elmaleh is inside Jerry Seinfeld’s tiny circle. Elmaleh voiced Seinfeld’s part in the French version of “Bee Movie.”

The soft-spoken Moroccan native abandoned a career as a French film star to move to New York to become a stand-up comic eight years ago.

“I was just compelled to do it,” Elmaleh said, calling from Manhattan. “I wanted to see how it would go. It’s a challenge doing this in English. I’m smarter in French.

“It’s not easy doing this if you don’t have all of the tools to express yourself. I’m much more complex and sophisticated in French.”

Elmaleh is a clever comic and he’s a wonderful filmmaker as well. “I really like ‘Stay With Us,’ ” Schindler said. “It’s semi-autobiographical and it’s so entertaining.”

“Less Than Kosher” is about a singer, who had promise but her career stalls and she finds herself living in her mother’s basement. The protagonist accepts a gig as a cantor in her family’s synagogue. The film is “Shiva Baby,” a worthwhile gem that fell under the radar, meets “A Star is Born.”

Hats off to the festival for bringing back some of its greatest hits. The documentary “A Jew Walks into a Bar” follows the life of David Finkelstein, an ultra Orthodox Jew, who is compelled to become a comic, which is almost impossible. Finkelstein must decide to accept a potentially career altering gig on the Sabbath.

“Zero Motivation” is 10 years old, but Schindler resurrected the flick. The film, which is a dark comedy about a unit of young female Israeli soldiers, is surprising and inspired.

The Spokane Jewish Film Festival, which screens some films and some online, has come a long way.

“We’ve developed into something,” Schindler said. “We were this small, modest scrappy festival and now we’re fine. I just hope more and more people come out and everyone should know that you don’t have to be Jewish to come to our festival.”