Do Film Festivals Build Jewish Identity?
One Sunday in November, 1,200 people at the vintage
Cooalidge Corner Cinema in Brookline, Mass., nibbled Jewish-flavored barbecued wings. Film screenings
sandwiched around the chicken, coleslaw and cornbread included “Shalom, Y’all,”
and “Kinky Friedman: Proud To Be an Asshole From El Paso.”
Those two documentaries about Jews and the South were among
dozens of offerings at the 14th annual Boston Jewish Film Festival last fall.
Though not exactly glatt kosher, the films — and meat — were
“a fun way to do something more” at the festival, executive director Sara Rubin
Perhaps much more, when it comes to filling Jews’ appetite
for greater identity, according to a new report by the Jewish Outreach
Institute in New York.
The study, “Can Watching a Movie Lead to Greater Jewish
Affiliation?” insists that the burgeoning Jewish film festival scene holds not
only big box-office potential, but the possibility of moving unaffiliated Jews
“along the continuum of Jewish involvement.”
The institute examined 46 festivals. One-quarter of them are
independently run, while the others have some kind of sponsorship Jewish
institutions or organizations, such as Jewish community centers or federations.
“Film festivals serve as an entryway into the Jewish
community,” institute spokesman Paul Golin said.
For no Jewish obligation or commitment stricter than the
price of admission — and the report urges discounts — any Jew can explore new
Jewish worlds in the anonymity of a darkened movie theater.
Hannah Greenstein, the Jewish Outreach Institute’s program
officer and co-author of the film festival report, said festivals should view
their audiences the way advertisers would target buyers.
“Jewish film festivals must have an outreach goal, they must
seek out marketing opportunities to the unaffiliated or the disengaged,” she
Those opportunities are booming.
The pioneering Jewish film fest, launched in 1980 in San
Francisco, has spawned more than 60 similar events annually in the United
States, from Fairbanks, Alaska to Philadelphia. Another half-dozen are held
in Canada, and about two dozen globally, from London to Hong Kong to Sao Paulo,
In one sure sign that the festivals have arrived, the
National Foundation for Jewish Culture sponsors an annual Jewish Film Festival
conference. The third such conference, set for San Diego in February, will
explore issues such as curating films about Israel in the Diaspora.
The foundation also receives up to 70 applicants each year
for the $150,000 it awards annually for Jewish documentary filmmaking.
Jewish “film festivals are one signal of a Jewish
renaissance” culturally, said Richard Siegel, the foundation’s executive
director. “They’re multiplying, so clearly they’re hitting a responsive chord.”
The box office is heating up too, opening the doors to even
wider Jewish involvement, the report said.
San Francisco has grown into the biggest event, attracting
34,700 people watching nearly 50 films in 2002. Toronto is next with some
15,000 people seeing over 60 films, while Boston drew a record 13,000 people
this year, up 18 percent from the previous year.
The institute’s report urges fests to program “next steps”
to greater Jewish activity. Ideas include information tables, panels of experts
around film topics or even crossover events to other communities featured in
some of the films.
Synagogue affiliation or ties to organized Jewry might come
later. But Siegel said traditional notions of Jewish affiliation — such as
synagogue membership or federation donations — must be expanded as well.
Jewish film-going is “not affiliation, it’s participation in
an active and meaningful way,” he said. “Why should a synagogue dues-payer who
attends three times a year be considered more engaged than an active
participant who debates films at a festival?”
What’s more, the film-going experience — a collective act
that is experienced individually — is “essentially what the prayer experience
is,” he said.
If Jewish film festivals are becoming the spiritual realm of
the barely initiated, then film topics run a gamut almost as wide as the great
Jewish texts. From gay Chasidic Jews (“Trembling Before G-d”) to the toxic
effects of vinyl siding on Jewish suburbia (“Blue Vinyl”) to Tel Aviv
20-somethings (“Giraffes”), Jewish filmmaking is blossoming, in part to meet
the demands of the festival scene.
In San Francisco, for example, festival officials screen 240
films a year, selecting about 50 for the annual event, Executive Director Janis
In Boston, Rubin said festival officials screened 450 films
before picking this year’s selections.
But Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National
Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and an associate professor of
Jewish film, sees a downside to the Jewish film explosion. The center, which
with more than 200 titles is the world’s largest distributor of Jewish film and
video, represents 108 filmmakers seeking distribution through the Jewish
Whether such festivals can raise Jewish consciousness
remains an “amorphous” equation, said Pucker Rivo, who doubts that 40 good
Jewish films are produced each year.
Jewish film festivals often show films “that didn’t make it
commercially: Either they’re really lousy films or they’re inaccurate,
historically,” she said. “But the imprimatur of a film festival gives it
Just what makes a good Jewish film remains a matter of
dispute: Plotkin, for instance, gave a thumbs down to the film “Schmelvis:
Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots,” while Toronto’s 10th annual festival
hosted the film’s world premiere.
Quality aside, Pucker Rivo also remains skeptical about the
Jewish film festival phenomenon. Today’s festivals, she said, are the
successors to yesterday’s “film series.”
Whether film festivals can raise Jewish consciousness
depends on where they’re held, she added.
The most effective use of Jewish films as a hook for Jewish
involvement is to show them in venues “that have an ongoing mission which is
not just entertainment, but life cycle, whether a synagogue, a Jewish community
center or a university,” she said.
But some disagree. Plotkin, said independently run
festivals, like San Francisco’s, are accountable only to their board of
directors rather than some outside agency sponsor, and so have “complete
Not all Jewish film festivals even list “outreach” as part
of their picture. But San Francisco’s, among others, seeks not only to
celebrate Jewish “diversity” but to “reach out to the young and unaffiliated,”
In fact, she was “thrilled” by the outreach report, which
“validated” her festival experience. An audience survey at this year’s San
Francisco festival found that nearly 60 percent of the 34,000 patrons said they
were returning for the third straight year. Five percent said they had been
returning each year for a decade. Some 30 percent were newcomers, according to
a 2001 survey.
Those results reflected what other festival officials
sensed: They’re attracting old and new audiences who are prime outreach
targets. In San Francisco, for instance, the 2001 survey found 80 percent of
film-goers were Jews, while 64 percent were married to non-Jews.
“Secular Jews,” Plotkin said, “come to the Jewish film
festival as it if were their High Holiday.”