The first 25 years — a look at the New York Jewish Film Festival
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The first 25 years — a look at the New York Jewish Film Festival

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Andrzej Wajda’s 1995 “Holy Week,” a Polish film, is featured in the retrospective.
Andrzej Wajda’s 1995 “Holy Week,” a Polish film, is featured in the retrospective.

It has been 25 years since the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center began a collaboration that resulted in the New York Jewish Film Festival.

Before the collaboration, the Film Society had drawn criticism for screening not even one Israeli film and for rarely selecting a film of Jewish interest as part of its New York Film Festival — a festival set in a city with a population that is one quarter Jewish. The shiduch between the society and the museum, though, was perfect. As a result, criticism of the Film Society was muted, and the Jewish Museum had the opportunity to expand its constituency beyond its physical space.

Jews are funny creatures. A Jewish event held at a secular cultural organization has special appeal; it gets a kind of heksher, an imprimatur, a sign that it is an event worth attending. Suffice it to say that a few decades ago few viewers would have ventured out to watch a 1930s Yiddish film, but when such a film was shown at Lincoln Center, it was one of the first to sell out.

Natalie Portman directed and stars in “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
Natalie Portman directed and stars in “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

Looking at the collaboration from this side of the Hudson, it appears that it has been successful. The film showings tend to be well attended, post-screening discussions have been lively, attention has been given to important filmmakers who are often otherwise ignored, and a community of committed filmgoers has emerged. A great deal of credit for that accomplishment goes to festival director Aviva Weintraub, who has been at its helm since 1998.

Sociologists have noted that the Jewish film festival phenomenon has provided a new way to identify as a Jew. Most festivals are held at secular institutions; when it is sponsored by Jewish organizations, much effort is made to host it outside a Jewish venue. That is a large part of the draw of the New York Jewish Film Festival — an opportunity to see films at Lincoln Center. The Pew Study found that while synagogue affiliation may have dramatically dropped, participation in Jewish cultural events, like film festivals, has increased greatly. Such Jewish organizations as Big Tent Judaism have seized on the fact that the Jewish film festival, open to anyone who might be interested, offers a great opportunity for outreach. In Bergen County, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey sponsors a community-wide Israel film festival each year; in Rockland County, a fine Jewish film festival takes place each spring.

As the New York Jewish Film Festival passes the quarter-century mark, it has had to struggle with what kind of Jewish film to chooses to screen. What makes a film appropriate for inclusion in a Jewish film festival often has been an open question. Last year, with new leadership at the Film Society, the festival chose to include a full range of films that had little or no connection with anything Jewish, and I, along with others, had strong objection to the choices it made. The selection committee seems to have listened to us. This year’s films seem to be far more appropriate. The films have Jewish themes or Jewish characters, or they raise appropriate Jewish questions. Each year the committee turns to a noted filmmaker, shows one or more of that person’s films, and has him or her choose important motion pictures to be screened. In my view, the filmmaker chosen should be someone who has struggled with Jewish issues in his or her work. Last year’s choice made little sense. This year’s pick, Todd Solondz, is a fine one — his sometimes controversial work often deals with issues related to Jewish identity. In a 2010 “Jewish Chronicle” interview, the filmmaker, who spent a few early years studying at a yeshiva, talked about how the Shoah affected him. “It was like a cloud that permeated my whole youth,” he said. He chose Alain Resnais’s ground-breaking 1955 short film, “Night and Fog,” which for many of us was our introduction to the Holocaust, to be screened.

Isaiah Sheffer, the founder of Manhattan’s Symphony Space, is the subject of “Art and Heart.”
Isaiah Sheffer, the founder of Manhattan’s Symphony Space, is the subject of “Art and Heart.”

This year’s festival is notable in that an Ethiopian film, “Lamb,” directed by Yared Zeleke, was chosen as the opening-night offering, and Natalie Portman’s Israeli-made adaptation of Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness” will close it. This year’s festival also includes a retrospective of some of the more important films screened over the past 25 years. They include Andrzej Wajda’s 1995 Polish “Holy Week,” Jeroen Krabbe’s 1998 Dutch-Belgian “Left Luggage” (a personal favorite), and Daniel Burman’s Argentine 2004 “Lost Embrace.” As in previous years, there will be a master class offered by a distinguished filmmaker. This year’s excellent choice is Alan Berliner; several of his films are being shown.

In all, 15 new feature-length films will be screened —most of them documentaries — along with a wide array of shorts. Two important biodocs to consider are Catherine Tambini’s “Art and Heart: The World of Isaiah Sheffer” and Marianne Lambert’s “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman.” Isaiah Sheffer, a Yiddish theater child actor, playwright, and cultural icon, left an indelible mark on New York life. Chantal Akerman, the child of Holocaust survivors, set new directions in movie-making before taking her life just days before the New York Film Festival premiere of her last film. Screenings of two largely Russian-language films — David Bezmozgis’s Canadian-made “Natasha,” about a Toronto Jewish family of Russian émigrés, and Eva Neymann’s Ukrainian “Song of Songs,” about a childhood romance set in a 1905 shtetl — also are worthy of note. Festival favorite Amos Gitai will offer a preview of his latest film, “Rabin, the Last Day,” just a few weeks before its New York opening.

The New York Jewish Film Festival is an important Jewish cultural event, and for many people it is a way of identifying as Jewish. Many audience members have their calendars marked well in advance. Many people who do not get preferential treatment, as members of either the Film Society or the Jewish Museum, often end up frustrated, because many of the screenings are sold out before tickets go on sale to the general public. Expect that to be the case again this year. The festival, which began on Wednesday, runs through January 26. For more information, go to www.nyjff.org.

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