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Where the Jewish films are

Rockland film festival comes to Nanuet in April

Micki Leader
Micki Leader

The Israeli baseball team. Martin Landau’s last film. Hedy Lamarr, the gorgeous Hollywood actress, Austrian refugee, and scientist who invented the radio technology that underlies WiFi networks. Elliot Gould. Sammy Davis Jr. Comedies and dramas. Stories of life before, during, and after World War II.

Yes, it’s a film festival — specifically the 15th annual Rockland Jewish Film Festival — 18 films coming to Rockland County in April. Most playing at the Regal in Nanuet; all accompanied by speakers waiting to field questions after the presentation.

And if you find yourself going out to Jewy movies night after night this spring, you’ll have Micki Leader of Orangeburg to thank. Ms. Leader came up with the idea for the film festival, convinced the Rockland JCC to take it on, served as the chair, and then, after “retiring” from the time-consuming volunteer position to become chairperson emerita, is back in the saddle this year, leading the coordination of the $80,000 project.

It was 16 or 17 years ago that Ms. Leader, a member of the board of the JCC, was reading a publication of the national JCC Association which had a feature “about how young Jewish people who had no affiliation with synagogues or any Jewish organizations were getting their culture, history, and current events information largely from film and television,” she said. “When I saw that, I brought this up to our CEO. It took over a year to convince them to do it. I learned it by the seat of my pants.”

She took to calling the directors of Jewish film festivals around the country — New York, Baltimore, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which was the first in the country in 1980 — and asking: How do we start one?

“We got a tremendous amount of help from the film festival community,” she said. “It’s grown from there every year.”

Back in 2004, movies still arrived on 35 millimeter film. Now the film festival team previews films on DVDs or Blue Ray disks on a 50 inch TV screen at the JCC; the films are screened in the theater on Digital Cinema Package hard drives, with Blue Rays for emergency backup. ( Over the years, Ms. Leader has learned that “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.”)

This year, the volunteers on the programming committee watched some 70 films. How do they find out about the new ones? Distributors suggest some of them; they learn about others from other festivals. The San Francisco film festival kicks off the season in July. “We look at what they’re showing. That’s when we start to request our screeners,” Ms. Leader said.

A variety of factors come into play in the selection decisions. There’s an effort to balance foreign and American films. “This year we have more English films than ever before,” Ms. Leader said; that’s because the programming team has heard many complaints about too many subtitles. There’s also the question of cost. Many film festivals demand entry fees from filmmakers, Jewish film festivals seek to nurture Jewish culture by paying rental fees for the films they screen. Some films, though, are too expensive for Rockland’s budget.

And then there is the matter of getting a speaker to go with the film.

“The introductions by the producers, directors, writers, or actors are wonderful. The Q & A, the energy — that’s what makes it a film festival!” Ms. Leader said.

Sometimes it’s easy to find the right speaker. Filmmaker Alison Chernik will introduce her film, Itzhak, about Izhak Perlman. Ms. Chernick is a Rockland native: She grew up in New City and went to Clarkstown High School. For the opening night of the film festival, on April 3, the three men who made the film “Heading Home,” about the Israeli baseball team, will speak about it.

But when the filmmaker is in Japan or Israel or even California, it can be trickier. There’s the matter of the budget again.

“We try to get people who are local to the metropolitan area,” Ms. Leader said. “You do a lot of research. You ask a lot of people.”

So for “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” the distributor connected them to Fleming Meeks, the journalist whose 1990 interviews with Ms. Lamarr are at the center of the film.

How many people come to the film festival? More than 5,000 last year, Ms. Leader said.

“It’s a celebration of global Jewish life,” Ms. Leader said. “It’s history, complexity, and culture. An incredible diverse number of films and an incredible diverse number of attendees. We get people from New Jersey and Westchester and even New York City.”

When you go from New Jersey to Manhattan for a film festival — or anything else — you have to pay tolls. To go to Rockland from New Jersey is free. And so is parking.

Most films show in Regal Films in Nanuet. “It’s a huge, beautiful complex, with enormous surround sound and a big theater screen,” Ms. Leader said. “It’s a professional experience. And it’s wheelchair accessible.”

The festival depends on sponsorships for the funding. Individual sponsors get passes to all the films. The festival is also looking for volunteers to help with the ushering.

Ms. Leader recommends buying tickets online in advance. Not every film sells out — but some do. Better to be prepared.

“It guarantees you will have a seat,” Ms. Leader said. “I can’t stress enough how important that is.”

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