AJFF What to Watch: Films About Painting


Whether it's about the artists creating the works, a scandal about what happened to them, or the manner in how they are kept, the subject of painting is one that is as interpretive of the art form itself. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

Eva Hesse
This documentary, featured at the 2017 AJFF, profiles the groundbreaking artist whose brief but consequential career helped usher in the 1960s post-minimalist movement before her untimely death. A brilliant and beautiful painter-turned-sculptor, Eva Hesse created wildly imaginative and evocative abstract art, pioneering the use of industrial materials including latex, fiberglass and plastics. Her work is often viewed in light of the emotional turmoil of a troubled life. Born in 1936 Hamburg, she fled Nazi Germany for New York, where her mother left the family and subsequently committed suicide. Her own failed marriage to fellow sculptor Tom Doyle was followed by a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Hesse died in May 1970 at the age of 34. In the first feature-length appreciation of her life and work, Eva narrates her own story through personal diaries and letters read aloud by actress Selma Blair. Interviews with fellow artists, friends, family, curators and critics are interwoven with deftly captured images of Hesse's multidimensional artwork, as well as extensive black-and-white photos. 

Coming into her own, a young woman from Mexico City finds herself torn between her Syrian-Jewish family and a forbidden love, in this delicate and melancholic romance. Naian González Norvind gives an intimate, honest portrayal of Ariela, an independently-minded artist living with her family in a cloistered Jewish neighborhood. Pressured to find an appropriate suitor, serendipity leads to a passionate courtship with Ivan (Christian Vazquez), a non-Jewish writer who shows her a world of possibilities beyond her sheltered life. As their feelings deepen, Ariela must weigh their unsanctioned relationship against rejection by her family and community, where religious values and traditions run deep. Bridging the divide between generations and cultures, writer-director Isaac Cherem's directorial debut deftly blends romantic comedy with an incisive feminist journey of discovery and self-determination. Featured at the 2019 AJFF.

The Museum
Going behind the scenes of the revered Israel Museum in Jerusalem, this documentary offers viewers an immersive exploration of Israel's most important cultural institution. Filmed over the course of 18 months during the museum's 50th anniversary celebrations, cameras capture the daily routine of a cast of characters—the museum director, a singing security guard, a Palestinian guide, and other museum staff and visitors—while peering through galleries, storerooms, classrooms and offices. With surprising insight and unexpected humor, award-winning documentarian Ran Tal offers a striking reflection of the vast and diverse components of Israeli society.

Portrait of Wally
The scandalous lawsuit over a Nazi-plundered painting is dissected in absorbing detail in this indignant exposé that reveals the political corruption and moral imperatives behind the New York art world. Confiscated by the Nazis from a Jewish Viennese art dealer in 1939, the Egon Schiele oil painting of his red-haired mistress resurfaced six decades later in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Thus began a 13-year legal battle pitting the Manhattan district attorney, the U.S. federal government and heirs to the stolen art against the Austrian government, billionaire art collectors, MoMA, National Public Radio – and even the Jewish Museum of New York. The criminal case went on to jumpstart the international art restitution movement, forcing museums to search their collections and return any contested property to the rightful owners. Culling through extensive interviews, legal briefs and archival footage, filmmaker Andrew Shea deftly navigates the long and ever-twisting odyssey of the titular masterpiece. Featured at the 2013 AJFF.

Raise the Roof
An international team chases an improbable dream to reconstruct one of the magnificent lost wooden synagogues of Poland. Originating in the small 18th-century town of Gwozdziec, these architectural marvels featured complex log structures elaborately adorned with Hebrew inscriptions and brightly painted animals. Eventually, more than 200 of these unique wooden synagogues dotted the countryside, until the Nazis burned every last one to the ground. Two former University of Georgia students masterminded a remarkable effort to rebuild this architectural wonder, recruiting hundreds of craftsmen, students, and other volunteers to their cause. Employing old tools and artisanal techniques, the team sets about recreating the synagogue's timber-framed roof and intricate mural designs. The film is an inspiring story of how combined talents in art and science brought back to life an artifact lost to history. Featured at the 2015 AJFF.

Woman in Gold
This 2015 biographical drama features an all-star cast headlined by Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. The film is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee living in Cheviot Hills, Los Angeles, who, together with her young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, fought the government of Austria for almost a decade to reclaim Gustav Klimt's iconic painting of her aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which had been stolen from her relatives by the Nazis in Vienna just prior to World War II. Altmann took her legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled on the case Republic of Austria v. Altmann (2004).