Jewish film festivals draw thousands

SAN FRANCISCO, July 27 (JTA) — As organizer of Hong Kong’s first Jewish film festival, Howard Elias showed nine films over eight nights in May, giving all but one of them its Asian premiere. An average of 29 tickets were sold at each screening.

When he made plans to attend the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Elias suspected he might run into a handful of Jewish film festival directors like himself in the audience.

What he didn’t plan on was running into a whole conference designed especially for people like him.

Co-sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the first Conference of American Jewish Film Festivals was held here last week. It coincided with the local festival’s 20th anniversary.

And although the Hong Kong-based consultant is not currently living in North America, he couldn’t believe his luck in discovering the conference.

“I’m thrilled,” said Elias, who lives in a city with some 3,000 Jews. “I couldn’t have imagined this. In each session, I’ve gotten three or four more ideas.”

With the proliferation of Jewish film festivals in places that can hardly be considered Jewish centers, the so-called People of the Book seem to be adopting another medium; they’re becoming people of celluloid.

While the more established festivals have several full-time employees who work year round on securing sponsorship and funding, most of the smaller festivals are run by nonprofessionals like Elias, who do it in their spare time and learn by trial and error.

Physician Stuart Levin has been the volunteer coordinator of the Durham, N.C., Jewish Film Festival since its inception two years ago. He said the conference afforded him an opportunity to meet those he’s been e-mailing, and learn from others. “I’ve been doing this in isolation, and there’s no single model for doing it,” he said.

Years ago, Jewish film festivals tended to consist of recycled classics like “Exodus” revived in old movie houses, said Richard A. Siegel, executive director of the New York-based National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Filmmaker Deborah Kaufman was the first to found an independent Jewish film festival, which she launched here 20 years ago. Attendance has since risen from 4,000 filmgoers the first year, to 35,000 last year, with screenings not only in San Francisco, but also in Berkeley, Menlo Park and San Rafael.

The foundation counts about 60 Jewish film festivals in North America, not only in Jewish centers like Toronto and Boston, but in places like Albuquerque, N.M., and Tampa, Fla.

When someone wanted to start a film festival in a new city, Siegel said, the would-be director would first make the obligatory phone call to Janis Plotkin, director of the San Francisco festival. As more festivals sprouted around the country, the foundation began making conference calls to the directors to assess their needs.

Soon, he said, it became evident that directors who often had no experience in the field could benefit from meeting one another. Many of the participants at the conference had spoken on the phone or e-mailed with others extensively before meeting.

Among the topics covered at the conference were distribution rights, marketing, film availability, corporate and non-corporate sponsors, funding, dealing with community sensibilities and co-sponsoring films with other organizations.

The explosion of Jewish film festivals occurred not only because more films with Jewish content are being produced, but also because “we’re seeing a reflection of Jewish experience that isn’t seen in any other venue,” Siegel said. “You can’t see these things anywhere else.”

Joanne Marks Kauvar, director of the Denver Jewish Film Festival, called the festivals a kind of “Jewish town square, where the widest group of Jews can gather.”

Kauvar said most Jewish gay men and lesbians in Denver feel they are not accepted by the mainstream Jewish community. However, “those who have been spurned by the Jewish community will still come to a Jewish film festival.”

Plotkin agreed, adding that the film festivals show multiple images of contemporary Jews. “We’re not the stereotype that people think we are.”

San Francisco has been a case in point, with scores of people who identify themselves as “cultural Jews” coming to the festival who have little or no Jewish involvement during the rest of the year.

But because the festival is one of the more successful vehicles to reach the unaffiliated, curators should be mindful of what messages their selections impart, said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council.

In an interview before her keynote address, local film festival founder Kaufman said she felt the purpose of Jewish film festivals is not merely to celebrate Jewish life, but to be provocative, and “question the aspects of Jewish communal life in the United States which need questioning.”

Indeed, as Jewish film festivals throughout North America become more popular, they’re changing the face of Jewish culture, and provoking controversy.

The local festival is an independent organization, yet it receives funding from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. In the past few years, the festival has shown documentaries about Israel that were not merely critical of certain Israeli policies, but that were called downright anti-Zionist by some critics. While Kahn said there was nothing wrong with showing those movies, he believes the festival should give a more balanced perspective, screening positive representations of Israel as well.

“No organization in the Jewish community here does as successful a job of outreach as the film festival to the marginally affiliated,” Kahn said. “But if most of the film festival is only a negative view of Israel, you have crowds of Jews who may not be getting any other perspective.”

Micha Peled, an Israeli filmmaker based in San Francisco, countered, saying, “The Israeli government seems to think Jewish film festivals should be an annex of the Ministry of Propaganda.”

Since chances are high that many of these people have never visited the Jewish state, Kahn added, the danger is that “you might be distancing people from Israel before they even have a chance to forge a relationship.”

“The range of issues and images at these festivals is probably more diverse and therefore more liable to generate discussion and debate than most activities in the Jewish community,” said Siegel.

Even the Durham festival, which counted 2,000 viewers last year, audiences include not only large numbers of gays and lesbians, but Palestinians. The North Carolina festival also featured a film about domestic violence in the Jewish community.

Interestingly, Siegel, who is on a foundation committee that funds documentaries on Jewish themes, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a hot-button issue for Jewish filmmakers.

“Gender is the new hot-button issue.”

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