Jewish Film Festival
From Celluloid To Synagogue
Do film fats really build Jewish identity?
• ELUL ELIA NICHOLAS,
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
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n a Sunday in November,
1,200 people at the vintage
Coolidge Corner Cinema in
Brookline, Mass., nibbled
Jewish-flavored barbecued wings.
Film screenings sandwiched around
the chicken, coleslaw and cornbread
included Shalom, Tall and Kinky
Friedman: Proud To Be an A
From El Paso.
Those two documentaries about
Jews and the South were among
dozens of offerings at the 14th annual
Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Though not exactly glatt kosher, the
films — and meat — were "a fun way
to do something more" at the festival,
Executive Director Sara Rubin says.
Perhaps much more, when it comes
to filling Jews' appetite for greater iden-
tity, 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 independent-
ly run, while the others have some
kind of sponsorship from Jewish insti-
tutions or organizations, such as Jewish
community centers or federations.
"Film festivals serve as an entryway
into the Jewish community," institute
spokesman Paul Golin says.
For no Jewish obligation or commit-
ment stricter than the price of admis-
sion — and the report urges discounts
— any Jew can explore new Jewish
worlds in the anonymity of a darkened
Hannah Greenstein, the Jewish
Outreach Institute's program officer and
co-author of the film festival report, says
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 unaffil-
iated or the disengaged," she says.
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 to Philadelphia. Another half
dozen are held in Canada, and about
two dozen globally, from London to
Hong Kong to Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In one sure sign that the festivals
have arrived, the National Foundation
for Jewish Culture sponsors an annual
Jewish film festival conference. The
foundation also receives up to 70
applicants each year for the $150,000
it awards annually for Jewish docu-
Jewish "film festivals are one signal of a
Jewish renaissance" culturally, says
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 says.
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 more than 60 films, while Boston
drew a record 13,000 people last year, up _
18 percent from the previous year.
Among the larger festivals, Boston
has grown from 10 films at its incep-
tion to last year's edition, which fea-
tured 45 films from 14 countries and
a $400,000 budget. The Boston film
festival also hosts Jewish films
throughout the rest of the year that
attract some 10,000 viewers.
Officially, the Boston festival aims to
showcase the best contemporary films
from around the world dealing with
Jewish themes. But Rubin says the fes-
tival also "pushes the envelope on
what is Jewish" and hopes to spark
debate about Jewish themes.
"The festival is a comfortable place
to be uncomfortable about your
Jewishness," she says.
This year's barbecue, at a hip art
house, echoed the kind of nontradi-
tional twist the Jewish Outreach
Institute applauds as a creative way to
promote Jewish interest.
But Gail Quets, the institute's direc-
tor of research and co-author of the
study, says anyone expecting people to
walk out of such events with a new
Jewish identity is kidding himself.