ORINDA -- The 18th Annual East Bay International Jewish Film Festival is preparing to serve local film buffs a robust smorgasbord of international award-winning dramas, family-friendly features, documentaries with impact, musical masterpieces and the obligatory big bucket popcorn.

From March 9-17, at the festival's three venues (Pleasant Hill's Cinearts, the Orinda Theatre in Orinda,and Livermore's Vine Cinema), 18 documentaries and 22 feature films will screen.

Operating under the umbrella of the Jewish Federation and The Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, festival Director Riva Gambert says the 27-member volunteer selection committee reflects the festival's international flavor.

"Over half of the people were born outside of the US," she explains. "We meet every two weeks for six months to review films, then every month for logistic planning."

Committee member selection is performed with the same careful scrutiny she applies to the more than 100 films she previews each year.

"We make sure they like international films and have actual knowledge or are cinema lovers. One year, we had someone who didn't like subtitles, so that didn't work," she laughs.

In 2013, more of the committee screenings happen online, which Gambert says is difficult, especially when film are only available for 24 hours periods. And there will be no 35 mm films this year: digital is now king.

Instead of following a theme -- other than reflecting the festival's overall "See a film, see the world" motto -- the films were chosen based on the importance of subject matter, quality of acting and cinematography, and for their "bridge building potential," Gambert says.

Music might be considered the material for constructing sturdy connections in 2013. "Hava Nagila," the iconic you-gotta-dance staple of Jewish celebrations, draws a spirited profile of the song's diverse history. "Orchestra of Exiles" shows violinist Bronislaw Huberman saving top Jewish musicians from Nazi obliteration and planting the seeds of the Israel Philharmonic in Palestine. "Under African Skies," extends the legacy of Paul Simon's controversial 1986 album, documenting a 25th century concert and reinvigorating the dialogue surrounding South Africa's apartheid system.

Gambert says this year's musical thru-line was "a fluke," but admits, musical films are engaging.

"Our audience appreciates films that not only please the eye, but please the ears."

But rattling, possibly even jolting, film lovers brains isn't out of the question either. Gambert mentions "Melting Away," the closing film.

"It's the first film we've had that deals with transgender," she says. "And we're having a panel discussion following the screening because it's a significant topic and transgender issues aren't discussed enough."

"My Dad is Baryshnikov" is a charming, comedic take on a young boy's efforts to pirouette and impress his peers with a lie. But it's also about family--and a boy's desperate desire for a father. And "The Inheritance," a film about an Israeli-Muslim family also examines life through a human, not political lens.

This festival's films come from all over the world, and do not speak to one ethnicity or religion, Gambert said. But they do reflect Jewish values Gambert believes include fighting intolerance, making sure people are treated with dignity and being inclusive of marginalized people.

Gambert says the festival costs approximately $90,000 to produce, with ticket sales covering just one-third of that amount. Sponsors and a large number of volunteers make renting the films, theater and equipment and promoting the festival a reality. She has no doubt the effort is worth it.

"We're not a tourist destination, but we have an audience hungry for international films. We're building bridges through the art of film. "

18th annual East Bay International Jewish Film Festival
WHEN: March 9-17
WHERE: CineArts (The "Dome") in Pleasant Hill, March 9-14; Orinda Theatre, March 15-17; Vine Cinema, Livermore, March 10, March 14
INFORMATION: http://www.eastbayjewishfilm.org