Film Festivals

In the Beginning, There Were Videos

1 Mar , 1999  

Written by Mary Phillips-Sandy | Posted by:

Now, the week-long Maine Jewish Film Festival features an Academy Award winning director, Yiddish rap & lesbian romance.

At its genesis, the Maine Jewish Film Festival was barely a festival. It was simply an unnamed event put on by the Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, Maine. With little fanfare and even less money, the congregation rented a few videos and projected them on a screen in the synagogue.

That, as they say, was then.

Today, the Maine Jewish Film Festival has a festival director, a sharp web site, a home in Portland’s famed art house cinema, The Movies on Exchange Street, and bright prospects for the future.

Now a week-long festival, running this year March 4-10, the MJFF expects to draw more than 2,000 attendees.

Local funding has provided the financial underpinnings for the fest’s growth. More than a dozen area businesses are supporting the festival this year, along with several foundations and a Portland philanthropist.

Why a Jewish film festival, and why Portland?

Festival director David Connerty-Marin explains, "In Southern Maine, it’s hard to feel Jewish anywhere but in the synagogue. In New York you can walk down the street and feel Jewish, but not here. [The MJFF] is a chance to feel Jewish in the outside world, and it’s a great gathering of the Jewish community for something other than serious study or prayer."

Still, you don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate the intriguing lineup of movies scheduled for this year’s fest. "We try to strike a balance," says Connerty-Marin. "We show feature-length films, some documentaries, and some shorts. We want people to learn and to have fun. We hope to get new takes on old stories, and informing pieces about bits of history or groups of people we never knew of."

While there are a lot of films about the Holocaust, and pre- and post- Holocaust, Connerty-Marin emphasizes that "We don’t want to be a Holocaust festival only." This year, for example, the festival includes two lesbian Jewish films–"Treyf," a feature about a lesbian couple struggling with their identity as Jews; and "Love Story," the true story of a relationship between a member of the Jewish underground and a Nazi officer’s wife.

Oh… and have I mentioned the Academy Award-nominated director who’s coming to the MJFF this year?

Yes, that would be Michael Verhoeven, acclaimed German director of "My Mother’s Courage," "The White Rose," and "The Nasty Girl" (1990 Academy Award nominee, Best Foreign Film). All three of these films will be screening at the MJFF; Verhoeven will be speaking before and after "The Nasty Girl" and "My Mother’s Courage."

German film critic Elisabeth Keil will be on hand to introduce and answer questions about "The Harmonists," a Miramax release that is taking its northern New England bow at the MJFF. "The Harmonists" tells the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a half-Jewish singing group that rose to acclaim in prewar Germany. Though members of the group thought their fame would protect them from Hitler’s dictatorship, they were wrong.

In all, the MJFF is offering 19 films from six countries. There is also a medley of short films on tap; subjects range from a Jewish grandmother’s recipe for chicken soup to activities in a bagel factory to an afternoon in a shvitz (that’s Yiddish for "bathhouse"). I would be remiss if I did not inform you that the latter film features a rollicking klezmer soundtrack, including the Klezmatics’ take on rap, Yiddish-style.

And really, what more can you ask for?

Tickets, maybe. Call 207-879-0028, or visit the MJFF web site at