Jewish Film Festivals

Jewish film festivals are wildly popular--and for some moviegoers, are a major expression of their Judaism.

Print this page Print this page

The kinds of films shown depend in part on a festival's venue and its sponsors. Some are held in Jewish community centers, museums, or synagogues. More--at least half, according to Greg Laemmle of Los Angeles's Laemmle Theater chain--are held in theaters. Films for the Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival screen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Las Vegas Celebration of Jewish Film, just two years old, holds its screenings in a casino (where else?). San Francisco's festival screens at three Bay Area theaters and on the University of California campus.

The locale is frequently tied to the festival's funding. Since only about one-half to one-third of an event's funds come from ticket sales, money needs to be raised from other sources. Most Jewish festivals get support from Jewish organizations. Almost all get additional funding from government grants (mostly local, regional or state), arts organizations, foundations and corporations. However, public funding involves a good deal of politics and formidable amounts of paperwork--and, in the current economic climate, it's becoming ever harder to obtain. To get grants today, says Felicia Shaw of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, "you have to be fearless."

Controversial Fare

Only four North American festivals have no institutional affiliation with the Jewish community: San Francisco, Boston, Toronto, and Brooklyn. Therefore, these festivals are free to show films that might offend some theater-goers.

In 2002, for example, San Francisco programmed seven films (out of 51) relating to Israelis and Palestinians, and attendance was high. Janis Plotkin, another former director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, admits that seven might have been a few too many. But, she points out, ignoring "the situation" is like having an elephant in a roomful of Jews--an elephant that nobody wants to discuss.

Still, Plotkin believes controversial films need to be shown; in fact, among the founding principles of the San Francisco festival was the idea of using art as a catalyst for discussion. "[Our] festival has been accused of having a liberal agenda. In fact, we're inclusive--we're inclusive of the moderate position, and we've been criticized for that [too]," she says.

Festivals catering to a more conservative audience, those in small towns or with close ties to synagogues or local Jewish community centers, stick to less controversial fare. And groups with less funding program older films. In 2002 and 2003, for instance, the documentary From Swastika to Jim Crow (1999, by Lori Cheatle, Steven Fischler, Joel Sucher and Martin D. Toub) were shown in several festivals; so has Matej Miná's Czech Holocaust feature, All My Loved Ones (1999).

Boon or Mixed Blessing?

For filmmakers, Jewish film festivals can be a boon or a mixed blessing, depending on their expectations. "What is nice about the Jewish film festivals, in addition to creating a community," says director Valerie Lapin Ganley, "is that they offer a venue for us to celebrate what being Jewish is all about--to rejoice in the best things about Jewish culture, history, accomplishments and identity and to critically address the tough issues and challenges that face us as a people."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Renata Polt is a film critic and freelance writer. She is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.