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Around the Jewish World Mexico’s First Jewish Film Festival Bring Community to the Mainstream

February 2, 2004
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Mexico’s first Jewish film festival aimed to teach local Jews about their heritage and non-Jews about a community that is sometimes misunderstood.

Judging from the discussions here about Jewish history and culture and the flurry of radio and television interviews accompanying the festival — which began Jan. 25 and was due to end Tuesday — it appeared to have succeeded.

The sold-out festival in Mexico City is one of only a handful of Spanish-language Jewish film festivals in the world.

“We are looking at this festival not as a Jewish event,” said Aron Margolis, director of the non-profit Mexico International Jewish Film Festival. “This is an excellent opportunity for Mexican society to get to know the Jewish community. The Jews in Mexico are known as a community that is very closed and doesn’t let people in to get to know us. But the more they know us, the more they understand us.”

There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico, a predominately Catholic country. Most live in Mexico City, the capital.

Mexico City resident Becky Herman, who is Jewish, said the festival offers a unique opportunity to learn about contemporary and historic issues in world Jewry.

“If it weren’t for this festival, we never would have heard about these films,” said Herman, who has tickets to all the films.

Herman’s husband Bernardo said he was deeply affected by the Jan. 27 screening of Secret Lives, a documentary about people who risked their lives to hide Jewish children during the Holocaust.

“Even if you’ve read every book about the Holocaust, you always learn from listening to people’s emotions,” said Herman, who lost grandparents, aunts and uncles in the Holocaust.

“Trembling Before G-d,” a documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, was scheduled to be shown in May 2001 at the Jewish Sport Center in Mexico City, but the screening was canceled due to pressure from Mexican Jewish groups.

“As part of the Jewish community in Mexico, I felt humiliated” that the screening was canceled, Margolis said. “I made a personal promise to myself that when this Jewish film festival happened in Mexico, this film would be part of it.”

The documentary’s director, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, said the fact that his film is being shown three years later at a Jewish film festival in Mexico City is representative of changing global attitudes.

“This film has unleashed worldwide change. It has become not just a movie but a movement,” he said. “When I heard that 800 people were coming to see it in Mexico, I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ “

There is one Mexican film in the festival, a 2002 documentary called “Eight Candles” about eight Converso families in Veracruz, Mexico. It tells the story of a group of people who for generations had avoided eating pork and had lit candles on Friday nights without knowing why.

In the early 1980s, some members of the group discovered their Jewish roots and converted to Judaism. Twenty years later, the congregation is struggling for acceptance from the Jewish community in Mexico.

“This opportunity is amazing, because for this first time the documentary is going to confront its intended audience,” said “Eight Candles” director Sandro Halphen, who lives in Mexico City. “I hadn’t found venues to reach out to them.”

Mexico’s festival is one of three Spanish-language Jewish film festivals in the world, Margolis said. The Barcelona International Jewish Film Festival has been held annually since 1999, and Argentina held its first Jewish film festival in October in Buenos Aires.

One of the most time-consuming and costly projects for Margolis’ foundation was translating the films into Spanish, he said.

“This wasn’t like in the United States, where there are so many Jewish film festivals that there are plenty of movies already subtitled in English,” said Margolis, a filmmaker who owns a production company called Amar Media.

There are more than 50 annual Jewish film festivals in the United States and Canada, according to the New York-based National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Margolis hopes the Spanish-translated films can be used in other parts of Latin America. He said he has talked with Jewish leaders in Venezuela, Costa Rica and several Mexican cities — including Cancun and Guadalajara — about the possibility of taking the festival to those places.

He also said that his foundation hopes to award grants to filmmakers who focus on Jewish topics.

“This is just the beginning of something that’s going to grow,” he said.

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