Love and laughter at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival

Audiences love a romantic comedy. But a couple of documentaries screening during the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival illustrate the challenges found in humor and love. It’s not nearly as effortless as it appears to be on the silver screen.

“The Last Laugh”
Ferne Pearlstein grew up in Wynnewood, a suburb right outside of Philadelphia. Her film on Holocaust humor, “The Last Laugh,” will have its first hometown screening during the festival. Pearlstein first thought of documenting this particular dark subject in a comedic context in 1993, but had to wait almost 20 years to even begin the project.

“We made a film about bad taste, but we did it in good taste,” said Pearlstein. “We started to uncover this funny and dark sense of humor among [Holocaust] survivors. It was very much like, ‘We can make jabs at our parents but you can’t.’ Except it’s not jabbing at parents, but what it was like to live in that hellhole.”

Pearlstein and her husband Robert Edwards had to assemble an entire film crew and scout locations in less than two weeks after they received a confirmation for their first interview. Actor and director Rob Reiner said yes to being featured in the film. After that, Pearlstein interviewed comedy and entertainment icons such as Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman and Robert Clary in addition to Auschwitz survivor and activist Renee Firestone. The film discusses gallows humor in addition to references to Nazi Germany in entertainment since World War II.

“The Freedom to Marry”
Director Eddie Rosenstein grew up in Pittsburgh, but has been visiting and working in Philadelphia throughout his career. His film “The Freedom to Marry” follows attorney Evan Wolfson as he navigates the world of legalizing same-sex marriage. The film premiered almost exactly one year after the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Evan Wolfson was at the forefront of this movement. Rosenstein grew up in his shadow. Wolfson and Rosenstein’s families were friends and neighbors while the two men were growing up in Pittsburgh. Rosenstein said the two weren’t close as kids, but the film brought them closer.

“You feel like you’re riding shotgun with the people who made this happen,” said Rosenstein. “This was no small feat to run, strategize and coordinate the biggest civil rights movement of our time.”

Rosenstein worked on the film from January 2015 to June 2016. He said that the film will be shown at high schools and colleges in addition to embassies in order to educate people on same-sex marriage in the United States.

“It’s a democracy builder,” said Rosenstein. “Everything seems so impossible these days. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy.”

“The Last Laugh” plays during the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 12. “Freedom to Marry” plays Nov. 14. The festival runs Nov. 5-19.