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Batsheva Dance Company performs in Batsheva Dance Company performs in “Mr. Gaga.” PHOTO: GADI DAGON

With a manageable 12 films in five venues across Cincinnati, the 2017 Mayerson JCC Jewish & Israeli Film Festival, which runs Saturday through Feb. 23, affords audiences a chance to explore the meaning behind its tagline: “Secrets. Journeys. Discoveries.” 

It has also scored at least one coup in the local premiere of a new documentary, Tomer Heymann’s Mr. Gaga, that just received a major feature in The New York Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section. It is a portrait of the much-heralded Israeli choreographer, Ohad Naharin, and the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company where he has been artistic director since 1990. Its screening at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 15 at the Kenwood Theatre has already sold out. (The same distributor that successfully released last year’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years plans a national release of this.)

Naharin has developed a new movement language, known as Gaga. The festival will have Victoria Morgan, artistic director and CEO of the Cincinnati Ballet, speak after the screening. Her company will perform a piece by Naharin as part of its March 17-18 Bold Moves program.

To provide me with an overview of the festival’s programming, I asked Heather Verbeck, its project manager, for some insight. Verbeck explained that the slate of films delves beyond the tagline, zeroing in on themes of love, family, loss, memory and triumph.

“This year’s festival transcends national boundaries and highlights characters, locations and directors from around the world,” she said. “The festival has a very international feel.”

The legacy of the past looms in Fever at Dawn, from Hungarian director Péter Gárdos, which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who receives a terminal diagnosis at a Swedish rehabilitation camp and sends letters to more than 100 women in the desperate hope of finding love before it’s too late. It screens 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Mariemont Theatre. 

But films like Roee Florentin’s Hebrew-language romantic comedy Mr. Predictable, which opens the festival 8 p.m. Saturday at the 20th Century Theater, and Who’s Gonna Love Me Now, which chronicles the experiences of a gay man with HIV living in London and seeking to return home to Israel, showcase contemporary issues from an international perspective. The latter screens 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Esquire Theatre.

Social media has had an impact on festival programming. “A friend of one of our patrons, who attended Miami’s Jewish Film Festival this month, raved in a Facebook post about On The Map and how great Tal Brody’s appearance was,” Verbeck said. (Brody is an American Israeli former basketball player featured in the film). “People familiar with our festival then highlighted that we would also be hosting him for our closing event, which in turn created buzz for his appearance in Cincinnati. This grassroots enthusiasm helps personalize the experience of coming to one of our events.” (On the Map plays at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at the 20th Century Theater for the festival’s closing night event.)

Verbeck highlighted two other (more traditional) examples of forging connections with the Cincinnati community at large. “Dr. David Cooper, the medical director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, will be speaking after A Heartbeat Away (which screens 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Kenwood),” she said. “Cincinnati resident Sonia Milrod will speak ahead of the screening of Persona Non Grata (3 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Kenwood), which tells the true story of Chiune Sugihara, who used his diplomatic powers while living in Lithuania to write thousands of transit visas defying the directives of his superiors in the Japanese government, thereby saving thousands of Jewish refuges during WWII. Milrod will talk about her father and uncle who were both saved by the transit visas they received from Sugihara.”

The “secrets, journeys and discoveries” of the 2017 Mayerson JCC Jewish & Israeli Film Festival will help make film a launching pad into the community and the world at large. 

The MAYERSON JCC JEWISH & ISRAELI FILM FESTIVAL opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 23. Tickets/more info: mayersonjcc.org.