Midway through the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival in this San Francisco surburb, the theater is filled for a screening of the 2005 Israeli film “What a Wonderful Place.”
Susan Richman drove in from Martinez with her husband. He’s Jewish, she’s not.
“We thought this sounded interesting, and it won some awards in Israel,” she says.
Karen McShea of Vallejo is here with two of her children. Her ex-husband was Israeli, and she says Israeli films “definitely” touch her in a deeper way than “just Jewish” films.
Ayala Mendelson of Walnut Creek is sitting amid two full rows of Israelis who have trooped in from around the Bay Area.
“Israelis like to come to these films to hear the Hebrew, feel the flavor of Israel,” she says.
Her daughter, who lives in San Francisco, often joins her.
“We miss it,” Mendelson says. “We’re here so many years, yet we’re always Israeli.”
There are more than 100 Jewish film festivals in North America, ranging from the oldest and largest in San Francisco to one-day events at smaller synagogues. While these festivals showcase Jewish-themed films from many countries, the Israeli films strike a particular chord.
For American Jews, it’s an immediate, palpable connection to the Jewish state.
“Film festivals offer a very immediate and direct way to connect with Israeli film and with Jewish directors who are exploring themes of Jewish identity and Israeli identity,” says Mitch Levine, president of the International Film Festival Consulting Group.
For Israelis living in America, the films provide a whiff of home. And for non-Jews, they show a country filled with ordinary people facing ordinary challenges, quite different from what they see on the nightly news.
“Film talks to people on a variety of levels, and you can connect to people on all those levels,” says Diklah Cohen, the Hill! el advis er to a 3-year-old student-run Israeli film festival at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Cohen says the audience is filled with students who don’t attend Hillel functions.
“They’re unaffiliated Jews, as well as non-Jews,” she says, adding that the festival is “a great way to bring Israeli culture to campus.”
For the Israeli film industry, the North American film festival circuit provides needed exposure and the chance for lucrative distribution deals.
“We live in a very small country and we make films in a language spoken by few people,” says Israeli filmmaker Dan Wolman. “So yes, the Jewish film festivals are important.”
That is particularly true for full-length features, which if they are shown at all in the United States outside festivals are relegated to limited runs in a few art houses.
In addition to the Jewish film festivals, there are dozens of Israeli film festivals. The largest is the Israel Film Festival [www.israelfilmfestival.com] presented in Los Angeles, Miami and New York, which in its 22 years has brought 600 Israeli films to North American audiences.
Michael Treves of JMT Films in Tel Aviv says it is a crucial venue for the films he represents.
“It’s important to be at the festival, to come to California to look for theatrical release,” Treves says. “And coming to New York is more important for television.”
The Israeli film industry received a boost in the late 1990s with increased government funding. Those who put on Israeli and Jewish film festivals note the increased number of films coming out of Israel every year and the higher quality.
The films also present a more nuanced picture of life in the Jewish state, one that isn’t always pretty. That does not sit well with Jewish audiences in North America, particularly the older generation.
Wolman has been making films for two decades, often on controversial subjects. In “Foreign Sistra,” a film about prostitut! ion, doc tors turn away a black foreign worker from an Israeli hospital.
That angered many American Jews, Wolman says.
“People said, ‘We don’t have prostitution in Israel,’ or ‘Israeli doctors are not that way,’ ” he recalls. “There is an older, conservative audience that loves Israel and wants to preserve a good image of the country.”
His film “Ben’s Biography,” which touches on child abuse, won prizes at international film festivals but was not shown at Jewish film festivals.
“There is a tendency to show films that are upbeat, milk and honey,” Wolman says.
Meir Fenigstein, director of the Israel Film Festival, agrees. He says the most popular Israeli films with American Jewish audiences “are films that educate them and give them a positive view of Israel. They don’t want to be disappointed.”
But Cohen says it is important to show Israel’s diversity, particularly to young Jews as well as non-Jews on campus.
“Some don’t show a great side of Israel, but they show a normal place with normal people,” she says. “We’re a country like any other.”