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Local Film Tweets

After the Fire: The 1999 Boston Jewish Film Festival

In its 11th season, the BJFF serves up 48 films from 18 countries, as well as some local gems.

By Amy Souza

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In its 11th season, the Boston Jewish Film Festival serves up 48 films from 18 countries, featuring documentaries, feature-length films, film shorts, and even a children's program. This year's festival received more entries than last year, despite a major setback along the way.

The BJFF suffered a great loss this year when fire ravaged its Waltham offices in February. Lost in the fire were 1998 entries that had arrived too late for consideration--entries that creative director Kaj Wilson had hoped to scan for this year's festival. After the fire, the staff and volunteers stepped up their search efforts, and found themselves with about 400 entries.

In fact, the BJFF conducts an extensive search for entries every year. Creative director Wilson attends the Berlin International Film Festival, which BJFF director Sara Rubin says is a great place to find films on Jewish themes. In addition, BJFF staff search other festivals' catalogs using the Internet; read publications like "Variety," the "New York Times," and the Pacific Film Archive catalog; and send out a call for entries each February or March. And when staff members travel, they keep an eye out for films playing locally. That's how Rubin found one of this year's entries, "Disparus," while traveling in Paris.

Creative director Wilson chooses the festival's lineup, though BJFF staffers view many of the films and pass along their written recommendations. There's also a screening committee that meets each week to view and discuss the films. Wilson herself tries to watch each entry in its entirety. "I hear of film festivals where the work is screened for three minutes," says Wilson. "I don't know how common that is, but I've heard if you don't make it in the first three minutes, you don't make it. I think that does a disservice to the filmmaker."

Wilson considers a number of factors when choosing a film, its interest to a Jewish audience being key. Other factors include whether the filmmaker is local or if the film might enhance a topic or theme being pursued for the year's programs. There are logistical considerations, too. Format is not a driving factor in the selection process, but the BJFF can only accept a certain number of works done on video. Only one of their screening venues, the Museum of Fine Arts, has video projection capabilities. To show videos at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the BJFF must bring in equipment. Over the past few years, Wilson has seen more work completed in video, a trend she likes: "The more work for us to look at the better."

Sara Rubin, now in her third year as festival director, has a passion for film and thinks the BJFF offers audiences a meaningful experience. "I think when you're a minority, your identity is important; and for Jews it's especially precious. The festival provides a comfortable and intellectually stimulating way to explore identity."

Though culture and identity are explored in many art forms, film holds a special appeal for Rubin. "Film has a wonderful immediacy that transports you into another world very quickly."

Furthermore, she says, film festivals offer a place for people to come together. "You're not sitting at home with a video; you're watching in a room with other people. It's something that you share and creates a sense of community."

To further enhance that communal experience, the BJFF also tries to provide contexts for the films. "We bring in the filmmakers; we build in discussion time," explains Rubin. "It goes well with exploring identity and helps to make the film a deeper experience."

Another unique offering is the festival's program book, which, says Rubin, takes advantage of Boston's intellectual community. Each year, several authors are asked to use a BJFF film as a jumping off point for an essay--not a critique of the work itself, but an essay that stems from the author's experience of the film. Program books are given to all festival attendees.

The BJFF's films should hold an interest for non-Jews as well. Themes of religion and culture, even if not one's own, generally engage people, says Rubin. Plus, the festival presents films audiences wouldn't normally see.

Festival Highlights

There are six U.S. premieres this year, including one that has generated much excitement--the animated "Anne Frank's Diary." The film is based on the unexpurgated diary text, and Rubin describes the animation as including "very hyper-realistic cityscapes that are really quite beautiful."

The festival also offers two films by local filmmakers, both of whom will be at their screenings. Local director Lisa Gossels will attend the November 14 showing of the documentary she co-directed, "The Children of Chabannes." (See review in this issue.)

Mary Kocol's 11-minute animated documentary, "My Father's Story," recounts the experiences of her non-Jewish father who was imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp. The film will featured as part of the "Sunday Shorts" program on November 7 and again in a Wednesday matinee November 10. Kocol will attend the November 7 screening.

This year's festival offers more shorts than ever before, including a program called "Rites and Rituals," comprised of four short films by female directors. The films explore the meaning rituals hold in contemporary life. The program will be followed by a discussion panel moderated by Gail Reimer, director of the Jewish Women's Archive.

The documentary "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is selling out rapidly, according to Rubin. A panel discussion follows this film about the Detroit Tigers player who overcame American prejudices and stereotypes to become a baseball legend. Discussion participants include filmmaker Aviva Kempner as well as local notables Alan Dershowitz, WBZ-4's Bob Lobel, and "Boston Globe" columnist Bob Ryan.

The 48 films at this year's Boston Jewish Film Festival offer film lovers an array of choices. And though the fire back in February did, as Rubin says, put a strain on the BJFF staff, "we'd like people to feel we didn't miss a beat." Judging from the programs being offered, they haven't.

The festival runs from November 4-14, and Rubin expects an audience of 10,000, up from 8,600 last year. Films are shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and the Warwick Cinema in Marblehead, MA. Tickets are available at each location beginning October 25. For those outside of Boston, the BJFF offers shortened screenings on the North Shore, at the Warwick Cinema, November 9-11, and at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, November 17-21.

For more information or to receive a program schedule, contact the BJFF at 617-244-9899. Also, visit the BJFF on the Web at www.bjff.org.