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Arts & Culture Founder of Berlin Jewish Film Festival Marks 10 Years with Plans to Expand

June 15, 2004
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Nicola Galliner wants to take her Berlin Jewish Film Festival, which is marking its 10th anniversary, throughout Germany. And if anyone can do it, she can. In 1994, Galliner, born in England to parents who had fled Nazi Germany, went to the directors of the Arsenal Theater, a film-lover’s cinema here, with a proposal: Berlin already had a popular Jewish cultural festival. Why not try the same with film?

Ulrich and Erika Gregor — whose daughter, Milena, currently coordinates the event with Galliner — were thinking along the same lines. Together with Galliner, they have built the Jewish Film Festival Berlin, which ended this week, into an institution known for breaking the mold.

This year, the festival offered 23 films from Israel, Britain, the United States, Australia, Sweden, Portugal, Russia, Argentina and France.

The festival is supported by the Israeli Embassy in Germany, the Jewish community in Berlin and Friends of the! German Cinema.

The new president of Berlin’s Jewish community, Albert Meyer, opened the event. Galliner, 53, prides herself on showcasing innovative films, including those that thumb their noses at the establishment.

So it is OK to laugh when Hitler turns up disguised as an old lady in London, in “Mrs. Meitlemeihr,” a bizarre movie by British filmmaker Graham Rose, which was shown this year, or when a Jewish organization hires a kosher super-hero to save Chanukah, in “The Hebrew Hammer,” a U.S. film by Jonathan Kesselman, which was screened last year.

“I have been accused of being too light-hearted,” says Galliner, who moved to Berlin in 1969. Since 1988, she has directed the Jewish community’s adult education program.

“There is a lot of negative energy around here still,” she says, noting that non-Jewish Germans often expect serious films on such topics as the Middle East conflict.

“I tend to lean toward comedy. It’s not that we concentrate on lighthear! ted things, but it doesn’t all have to be looking backwards. It can be about Jewish life today,” Galliner says.

Despite recent incidents of anti-Semitism linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jews again are feeling confident in Germany, opening synagogues, building new community centers and developing a public presence in media and the arts.

The postwar Jewish population has tripled to about 105,000 since the fall of communism, thanks to arrivals from the former Soviet Union.

For Janis Plotkin, former director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the Berlin festival is an inspiration.

“Anything that provides a solid and creative Jewish presence in Berlin, that embraces all ways of being Jewish, is a very good thing,” says Plotkin, whose Polish grandfather lived in Germany briefly before fleeing the Nazis.

Today it is a lot easier to be in-your-face as a Jewish artist in Germany, says Anna Adam, 41, who has lampooned modern German philo-Semitism in her artwork and collaborated with Christian and Muslim artists on ! creative happenings.

“We are trying to show that we are proud and fresh and courageous,” says Adam, who contributed an irreverent essay on “How to Make a Jewish Film” to the festival’s retrospective volume.

“What I really like about the film festival is that there is something for everyone, even for Jews,” says Adam, a member of the Berlin Jewish artists collective Meshulash. “There are many Jewish festivals in Germany that are made for non-Jews.”

In fact, many in the audiences at the festival were not Jewish, and some didn’t get all the Jewish jokes in the films.

But there is a lot of laughter, Galliner says, which is a good thing in a country struggling with the legacy of the Holocaust.

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