The cultural ties between Jews and film have long been strong — from knowing chuckles at Woody Allen flicks to flocking en masse to the cinema on Christmas — but few instances bind the two tighter than a Jewish film festival.
Pittsburgh, whose Jewish Israeli Film Festival begins Thursday, March 4, is one of over 100 such festivals worldwide. And despite new media providing more access to film and declining funding working against Jewish film festivals, organizers around the country say their events aren’t going anywhere. They simply have to adapt.
“The landscape of how independent or international art-house film and media are getting out to audiences is changing so drastically, you have this real bottleneck in terms of films finding the right audiences,” said Peter Stein, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which, founded in 1980 and annually drawing 30,000 moviegoers, is the country’s oldest and biggest.
There are an estimated 70 Jewish film festivals in this country alone, ranging from expansive, multiweek festivals like Pittsburgh’s, Atlanta’s or San Francisco’s to single-weekend events, and everything in between.
With 27 films this year, the Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival, now in its 17th year, continues to grow, bucking the trend of the collapse of many arts organizations — but it’s not without a fight.
“In Pittsburgh and around the country, fundraising has suffered. Festivals have scaled back a little bit,” said PJIFF Executive Director Kathryn Spitz Cohan. “We have a few less films this year and a few less screens.”
Any cuts in funding, Cohan said, have been curbed in other ways.
“We worked really hard this year for publicity trades. Our images will be on buses; [in exchange] Port Authority is a sponsor,” said Cohan.
Another buffer against economic barriers is simply making the movie theater/home viewing experience more distinct.
“Whether it’s having guest speakers or discussions or food or partying, you’ve got to create a social engagement aspect that makes the festival distinct from people gathering in a living room to stream the movie from Netflix,” said Stein.
The Internet’s easy-access to many films and services like Netflix provide possible trouble for festivals, most of which specialize in films without major distribution.
“The way people consume and share media is extremely volatile and becoming dispersed,” said Stein. “People don’t necessarily turn to screenings and theaters as their only way they find media they care about.”
Some organizers, however, see the benefit of such media almost outweighing the effect on festivals. “When you put these films on the Web, it gives people who are out there in small communities access to them,” said Helen Zukerman, executive director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, one of the world’s largest. “These are people who can’t come to a Toronto or a Pittsburgh festival.”
Ultimately, though, festival organizers say their events will continue to exist because of the festival’s cultural importance in, “deepening Jews’ connection to Judaism, and opening awareness and building bridges for non-Jews,” said Cohan.
The connection to Judaism created by film festivals is pointedly outside the synagogue.
“Festivals provide an opportunity to share a cultural activity,” said Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. “Whether it’s a music festival or a film festival or an Israel Day parade, it’s cultural arts — it’s not religious. It’s a secular endeavor.”
As such, the films reflect the broader world of Jewish culture that surrounds Jewish religion, drawing “people with nose rings sitting beside people who came from the office in a suit and tie,” said Zukerman.
Pittsburgh’s festival, for example, includes a love story about a klezmer musician falling for an Arab transsexual (“He’s My Girl”), a documentary about “the Jewish Schindler (“Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis”) and a film about the first Best Actress Emmy winner (“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”) — disparate topics for endless varieties of Jews and non-Jews alike.
“Our funniest discussion is what a Jewish film exactly is,” said Zukerman. “I’m not sure, but I know it when I see it.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)