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The Brains Behind Three Jewish Film Festivals

1 Mar , 2009  

Written by Christine Morrison | Posted by:

With three area festival directors as guides, Christine Morrison sheds light on how to be an effective film festival director.

When describing the late Lynne Gordon, the Hartford Jewish Film Festival director who passed away last month, it has been said she was “the brains, the heart and the soul” of the festival. It is no coincidence that the same can be said of Kari Wagner-Peck, executive and artistic director of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, and Lisa Rivo, associate director of the National Center for Jewish Film housed at Brandeis. Along with Gordon’s successor, acting director Harriet Dobin, Wagner-Peck and Rivo are hosting Jewish film festivals this month.

While these three directors began their career paths far from the festival circuit, they each possess the breadth of skills crucial to running a successful festival: business savvy and diplomacy to manage everyone from distributors and donors to vendors and volunteers; aesthetics and creativity to judge and categorize films; and strong leadership to oversee pulling together the copious elements. An additional attribute also prominent in this talented trio — vision.

For these women in charge, directing a film festival, particularly a Jewish film festival, is about identifying what the audience wants to see, while still pushing to showcase films with a message.

“In Maine, where less than one percent of the population is Jewish,” Kari Wagner-Peck says, “the festival is often considered a cultural art program. We don’t want to dilute the Jewish part, but we are really aware that our reach can get very broad.”

A former documentary filmmaker who previously launched a festival at the University of New England, Wagner-Peck feels her greatest contribution since joining the Maine Jewish Film Festival (MJFF) in 2007 has been establishing a festival theme, and presenting it to the audience. By creating a theme, developing applicable programming and bringing in speakers centered around the theme, Wagner-Peck feels she “helped captivate people” and “has brought in those that may not have thought of coming to the festival before.” For Wagner-Peck, a theme might be one based on personal experience, as was last year’s labor theme, or as broad as Jewish humor. With a warm upbeat laugh, she reiterates how much you can engage people with humor.

This year’s MJFF theme is “The Diaspora Experience: What it Means to be from Away.” “With 14 million in the world living in the diaspora, especially in Portland and Lewistown where we have a lot of East African refuges, Russian refuges, Ukranian, and numerous coming from Iraq, this is an opportunity to reach out to those who have been displaced,” said Wagner-Peck.

Wagner-Peck boasts of the many films fulfilling the theme, but feels there is one that is most representative — King Lati, The First. The documentary about an 8-year-old boy living in Tel Aviv, born to a Senegalese father and a Belarusian mother, will be screened on March 27th. “This film is the big opportunity because you don’t get more [like diaspora] than that.”

Harriet Dobin concurs about the importance of expanding the Hartford Jewish Film Festival’s reach. “It’s not only the Jewish community that comes out to the festival. We reach out to people of all states, and backgrounds, and diverse interests.”

Dobin, who has humbly stepped into Lynne Gordon’s role at this late date, says her goal is to “fill the seats, get the films to where they are supposed to go, talk to the media and make sure everyone knows about this festival.” While she has been spearheading PR and marketing for the HJFF for three years, and screens each film before it is presented to the audience, she feels this is really Gordon’s festival. “It was her last; I would like to say it is my first. Many of the elements that were in place before Lynne passed will continue.”

Since 2001, when Gordon took over from the founder, Lisa Kassow, the festival has continually grown in popularity. Dobin believes this is due to HJFF’s commitment to quality and unique content. “I think people wait every year for this festival because there is not one place with 23 films, with some kind of Jewish content and flavor, that brings together cultures, countries, languages, and backgrounds. We scour the world for these films, and only present the best.”

Dobin points to two films making their premieres at the festival, The Little Traitor and The Secret as personal favorites. The HJFF is also taking great pride in presenting Toyland, as it has just won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short.

Another film sure to gain attention is about Lynne Gordon’s life. This tribute to her eight-year legacy, which will be presented on opening night, includes interviews with members of the committee as well as her two daughters, in addition to archival footage and photographs. “We received many contributions in memory of Lynne, that will be used to continue her legacy of illuminating the community with Jewish film in the years ahead.”

In addition to film excellence, Dobin explained Gordon’s driving force to expose films and themes people might not have always wanted to see. “With something that might be edgy or different, or take on a subject matter that the community might be reticent to tackle, Lynne would say, ‘This is a film we need to show because this is a side of the Jewish world that people should know about.’ She was able to see through a lot of people’s objections to what the film might present, and would say, ‘We need to show this side. We need to stretch the envelope a little and see what film can do.’ Filmmakers appreciated it too.”

While Lisa Rivo strives to expand her festival’s reach and present quality films and insightful presentations, she admits this is only part of her mission. As associate director of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF), she is dedicated to the Center’s broader objective of collecting, restoring, and distributing films globally throughout the year.

Rivo, who feels she was “truly born into the Center,” works alongside the NCJF’s co-founder, Sharon Pucker Rivo — who also happens to be her mother. She can recall having filmmakers stay at her house during childhood, and witnessing her mother work on this “labor of love” since its inception in 1976. While Rivo freelanced for the Center while working at the Museum of Fine Arts and while earning a graduate degree in American Visual Culture, she joined full-time three years ago when Miriam Krant, with whom her mother founded the organization, passed away.

This year marks the NCJF’s 12th Festival. The strong relationships with both Brandeis University and filmmakers were the impetus for the event initially, and contribute to its success each year. While assisting with the launch of the Brandeis Cinematheque, the NCJF founders, who were sending programming all over the world, began asking themselves, “Why are we programming in Beijing but not in Boston?” Pucker Rivo and Krant foresaw this new venue as an opportunity to not only distribute films in “their own backyard” but to capitalize on “having the inside line on what is in production” and “getting things first” as they often distributed films for filmmakers unable to find distribution elsewhere.

Rivo believes the NCJF festival is unique in that it not only presents the ideas and films, but also has filmmakers and practitioners on hand for discussion. “We never show a film that doesn’t have in some manner a presentation with it.”

Rivo strongly believes the NCJF’s success stems from “a passion for the material and the purpose, and the dedication to quality.” While she and Pucker Rivo screen each film — there is no committee — they painstakingly work to ensure historical accuracy, “calling in our colleagues at Brandeis and beyond to verify and vet the materials to make sure it is in accordance with the latest research.”

While these directors recognize their passion and vision enable them to continue each festival’s success, they acknowledge that limited resources are the greatest obstacles and without the many volunteers and donors, they could not forge ahead.

Hartford Jewish Film Festival runs from March 14-23, 2009. For tickets, sneak previews and schedule visit Or, call the box office at 860.231.6316.

Maine Jewish Film 12th Annual Film Festival runs from March 21-29, 2009. For tickets and more information about the films being showcased, visit

The National Center for Jewish Film’s 12th Annual Film Festival runs from March 25-April 5, 2009. For details, visit

Hartford Jewish Film Festival runs from March 14-23, 2009. For tickets, sneak previews and schedule visit Or, call the box office at 860.231.6316. Maine Jewish Film 12th Annual Film Festival runs from March 21-29, 2009. For tickets and more information about the films being showcased, visit The National Center for Jewish Film’s 12th Annual Film Festival runs from March 25-April 5, 2009. For details, visit