With the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s 15th annual Israeli Film and Cultural Festival set to begin on March 2, Leslie Billet of Englewood – chair of the event and of JFNNJ’s Center for Israel Engagement – said she expects record attendance.
“We had more than 1,200 [attendees] last year and the year before that, and we’re hoping for even more this year,” Billet said
“Every year, it’s grown in importance,” she added, noting that community shaliach Avinoam Segal-Elad gets phone calls as early as December to find out what films will be screened at the event. “They hear about an Israeli film playing somewhere in the country and they ask, ‘Are we getting this?'”
Billet said that most people who go to see the films “want access to Israeli-ness,” whether the movies are funny or serious, religious or secular. “It’s an ‘osmotic’ event,” she said. “The films are educational but not in an academic way. People want to ‘touch’ Israel. That’s what the film festival does.”
Pointing out that every movie has either a cultural program or a speaker attached to it, Segal-Elad said the festival might be characterized as the “federation inviting the entire community into our home to come and see a movie. People can see Israeli movies in any theater,” he said, citing movies like the recent “Footnote,” which screened in a variety of venues.
“They like the connection,” Billet said. “When they come to the federation-sponsored festival, it’s Avinoam’s show ““ he’s our Israeli representative.”
Calling the festival “an intensely Israeli personal experience,” she pointed out that Segal-Elad can help clarify for viewers any parts of a film they find confusing. So, too, can the speakers, including in some cases the directors and actors who are invited to participate.
According to the shaliach, a committee works all year to choose the movies, which generally are suggested by a consultant or by committee members themselves. All members watch the movies in advance, taking notes that later will be shared by the committee as a whole.
“This is an Israeli film festival, not a Jewish film festival,” Billet said, so even topnotch Jewish movies made elsewhere will not be selected for it.
She pointed out as well that the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the YJCC of Bergen County, and the Wayne Y “are really huge partners” in this effort. In addition, several synagogues are represented on the committee and volunteer to serve as venues for the films.
“We try to spread it around,” Segal-Elad said, noting that films will be shown in towns ranging from Wayne to Tenafly. “We try to make it available to people all over the catchment area.”
In addition to advertising done by JFNNJ, host venues undertake to publicize the films themselves.
“People choose [whether to come] by considering both the film and the venue,” Billet said. “If they’re part of a synagogue, they may want to go to that synagogue.”
The shaliach noted that in choosing films, committee members target those that tell stories about Israel.
“We’re not an advocacy film festival,” he said. “We want to show life in Israel, and that may sometimes be complicated.” He noted, for example, that last year’s festival included a movie about a boy with autism.
“It was hard to watch how society treated [him], but it was a beautiful family movie,” he said, adding that the portrayal of Israel in the films is “not coming through the consulate but [reflects] life in Israel. Films are a powerful way to do that. Part of Israeli life is conflict, but there’s a broader aspect.”
Another example of this approach was the choice of the Israeli television serial “Arab Labor,” now in its third season.
“It’s very popular in Israel,” said the shaliach, adding that “it’s hilarious, but it makes you think a lot.”
Taking jabs at both Israeli and Arab stereotypes, the show focuses on an Arab-Israeli family living in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. The discussion following the film will feature Sayed Kashua, who created and wrote the series.
“It’s smart and funny and sad in a way,” said Segal-Elad. “It puts a mirror in front of everyone’s face, just showing the situation.”
Billet noted also that the advertising poster for “Fill the Void,” the movie scheduled for the opening night of the festival, features a chasidic couple. The film, however, touches on issues beyond what is implied by the picture. “The visual is not equivalent to the story itself,” she said.
The festival organizers agreed that cinema is a growing industry in Israel and that filmmaking there has become increasingly sophisticated, “with some cinema films even too sophisticated for our purposes,” Billet said. “We want to touch a larger community.” The increasingly high quality of Israel films has been reflected in the increasing number of Israeli films considered for Academy Awards, she added.
Billet said the admission fee has been kept relatively low because the project “is not a money-maker. We want people to come,” she said, pointing out that the project exemplifies federation’s role as a convener of community events.
“Spring is in the air, even with a few snowflakes,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for people to go out and see other people and do something different.”
“And if people have some kind of passion about Israel, they can come and learn more about the country they love,” Segal-Elad said.