From Celluloid to Synagogue: Do Film Fests Build Jewish Identity?

One recent Sunday, 1,200 people at the vintage Coolidge Corner Cinema in Brookline, Mass., nibbled Jewish-flavored barbecued wings.

Film screenings sandwiched around the chicken, coleslaw and cornbread included “Shalom, Y’all,” and “Kinky Friedman: Proud to be an Asshole From El Paso.”

Those two documentaries about Jews and the South were among dozens of offerings at the 13th annual Boston Jewish Film Festival in November.

Though not exactly glatt kosher, the films — and meat — were “a fun way to do something more” at the festival, Executive Director Sara Rubin says.

Perhaps much more, when it comes to filling Jews’ appetite for greater identity, according to a new report by the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York.

The study, “Can Watching a Movie Lead to Greater Jewish Affiliation?” insists that the burgeoning Jewish film festival scene holds not only big box-office potential but the possibility of moving unaffiliated Jews “along the continuum of Jewish involvement.”

The institute examined 46 festivals. One-quarter of them are independently run, while the others have some kind of sponsorship Jewish institutions or organizations, such as Jewish community centers or federations.

“Film festivals serve as an entryway into the Jewish community,” institute spokesman Paul Golin says.

For no Jewish obligation or commitment stricter than the price of admission – - and the report urges discounts — any Jew can explore new Jewish worlds in the anonymity of a darkened movie theater.

Hannah Greenstein, the Jewish Outreach Institute’s program officer and co- author of the film festival report, says festivals should view their audiences the way advertisers would target buyers.

“Jewish film festivals must have an outreach goal, they must seek out marketing opportunities to the unaffiliated or the disengaged,” she says.

Those opportunities are booming.

The pioneering Jewish film fest, launched in 1980 in San Francisco, has spawned more than 60 similar events annually in the United States, from Fairbanks to Philadelphia. Another half dozen are held in Canada, and about two dozen globally, from London to Hong Kong to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

In one sure sign that the festivals have arrived, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture sponsors an annual Jewish Film Festival conference. The third such conference, set for San Diego this February, will explore issues such as curating films about Israel in the Diaspora.

The foundation also receives up to 70 applicants each year for the $150,000 it awards annually for Jewish documentary film making.

Jewish “film festivals are one signal of a Jewish renaissance” culturally, says Richard Siegel, the foundation’s executive director. “They’re multiplying, so clearly they’re hitting a responsive chord.”

The box office is heating up too, opening the doors to even wider Jewish involvement, the report says.

San Francisco has grown into the biggest event, attracting 34,700 people watching nearly 50 films in 2002. Toronto is next with some 15,000 people seeing over 60 films, while Boston drew a record 13,000 people this year, up 18 percent from the previous year.

Among the larger festivals, Boston has grown from 10 films at its inception to this year’s edition, which featured 43 films from 14 countries and a $500,000 budget.

The Boston film festival also hosts Jewish films throughout the rest of the year that attract some 10,000 viewers.

Officially, the Boston festival aims to showcase the best contemporary films from around the world dealing with Jewish themes. But Rubin says the festival also “pushes the envelope on what is Jewish” and hopes to spark debate about Jewish themes.

“The festival is a comfortable place to be uncomfortable about your Jewishness,” she says.

This year’s barbecue, at a hip art house, echoed the kind of nontraditional twist that the Jewish Outreach Institute applauds as a creative way to promote Jewish interest.

But Gail Quets, the institute’s director of research and co-author of the study, says anyone expecting people to walk out of such events with a new Jewish identity is kidding himself.

“Outreach is a sequence of activities. People don’t see a Jewish film and run out and join a synagogue,” she says.

The institute’s report urges fests to program “next steps” to greater Jewish activity. Ideas include information tables, panels of experts around film topics or even crossover events to other communities featured in some of the films.

Synagogue affiliation or ties to organized Jewry might come later. But Siegel says traditional notions of Jewish affiliation — such as synagogue membership or federation donations — must be expanded as well.

Jewish film-going is “not affiliation, it’s participation in an active and meaningful way,” he says. “Why should a synagogue dues payer who attends three times a year be considered more engaged than an active participant who debates films at a festival?”

What’s more, the film-going experience — a collective act that is experienced individually — is “essentially what the prayer experience is,” he says.

If Jewish film festivals are becoming the spiritual realm of the barely initiated, then film topics run a gamut almost as wide as the great Jewish texts.

From gay Chasidic Jews (“Trembling Before G-d”) to the toxic effects of vinyl siding on Jewish suburbia (“Blue Vinyl”) to Tel Aviv 20-somethings (“Giraffes”), Jewish film making is blossoming, in part to meet the demands of the festival scene.

In San Francisco, for example, festival officials screen 240 films a year, selecting about 50 for the annual event, Executive Director Janis Plotkin says.

In Boston, Rubin says festival officials screened 450 films before picking this year’s selections.

But Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and an associate professor of Jewish film, sees a downside to the Jewish film explosion.

The center, which with more than 200 titles is the world’s largest distributor of Jewish film and video, represents 108 filmmakers seeking distribution through the Jewish festivals.

Whether such festivals can raise Jewish consciousness remains an “amorphous” equation, says Pucker Rivo, who doubts that 40 good Jewish films are produced each year.

Jewish film festivals often show films “that didn’t make it commercially: Either they’re really lousy films or they’re inaccurate, historically,” she says. “But the imprimatur of a film festival gives it legitimacy.”

Just what makes a good Jewish film remains a matter of dispute: Plotkin, for instance, gave a thumbs down to the film “Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots,” while Toronto’s 10th annual festival hosted the film’s world premiere.

Quality aside, Pucker Rivo also remains skeptical about the Jewish film festival phenomenon. Today’s festivals, she says, are the successors to yesterday’s “film series.”

Whether film festivals can raise Jewish consciousness depends on where they’re held, she contends.

The most effective use of Jewish films as a hook for Jewish involvement is to show them in venues “that have an ongoing mission which is not just entertainment but life cycle, whether a synagogue, or a Jewish community center, or a university,” she says.

But some disagree. Plotkin, says independently run festivals like San Francisco’s are accountable only to their board of directors rather than some outside agency sponsor, and so have “complete curatorial” freedom.

Not all Jewish film festivals even list “outreach” as part of their picture. But San Francisco’s, among others, seeks not only to celebrate Jewish “diversity” but to”reach out to the young and unaffiliated,” Plotkin says.

In fact, she was “thrilled” by the outreach report, which “validated” her festival experience.

An audience survey at this year’s San Francisco festival found that nearly 60 percent of the 34,000 patrons said they were returning for the third straight years. Five percent said they had been returning each year for a decade. Some 30 percent were newcomers, according to a 2001 survey.

Those results reflected what other festival officials sensed: They’re attracting old and new audiences who are prime outreach targets. In San Francisco, for instance, the 2001 survey found 80 percent of film-goers were Jews, while 64 percent were married to non-Jews.

“Secular Jews,” Plotkin says, “come to the Jewish film festival as it if were their high holiday.”

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