Jewish Film Festivals

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

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But the festivals aren't only for Jewish people," she continues. "They are a place where others can come and learn about us, and because Jewish films so often explore the diversity of Jewish identity we can all learn about other cultures."

Ganley's Shalom Ireland, a documentary about the Diaspora Jews of the Emerald Isle, had its United States premiere this year in San Francisco. Filmmaking, she points out, is a lonely process: "It isn't until you are able to show the film in a public forum…that you can see how your project may enrich the lives of others, by offering them something that is entertaining and that they can learn from."

Pearl Gluck, whose documentary, Divan, about her search for a historic couch on which nineteenth-century rebbes slept, was screened at this year's San Francisco festival, says that Jewish festivals are "...notorious for getting the audience out there and getting support for a film." She quotes the distributors for her film as saying, "'Don't you dare turn any Jewish festivals down, because they are the best.'"

However, Los Angeles-based Amir Bar-Lev, whose documentary Fighter went into limited general release after making the festival circuit, says that it's important to show your films in the right order. Fighter, about boxer Jan Weiner's and novelist Arnost Lustig's visit to their European pasts opened at the Los Angeles International Film Festival and then went on to other non-Jewish venues before starting on the Jewish circuit. "If you do the Jewish festivals first, the regular ones don't want you," says Bar-Lev.

David Magidson, director of Detroit's Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival, agrees that filmmakers might have problems if they rely exclusively on Jewish festivals. "There's a food chain of feature films," he says. "If it's any good, the [Jewish] festivals don't get it." The aim of distributors is to get their films distributed commercially, and they don't want festivals to have first crack at a film in fear that they'll be "using up" the audience.

However, the San Jose (California) Jewish Film Festival showed Roman Polanski's The Pianist a month before it opened commercially, and the screening helped build the film's market. Some other films that have appeared at Jewish festivals and then gone on to commercial distribution are Promises, Trembling Before G-d and Aviva Kempner's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

"Pay-Per-View" Judaism

But getting an advance peek at a movie before it goes into general distribution--and possibly wins Academy Awards, as The Pianist did this year--is only a small part of the reason why people attend Jewish film festivals. A recent study conducted with the assistance of the Stanford University Jewish studies program showed that people believe that going to a Jewish film festival was a valid expression of their Jewish identity--however they define it.

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