The 23rd annual Maine Jewish Film Festival kick off Saturday. As always, this annual cinematic celebration takes on the meaning and evolution of Jewishness, while scheduling a week-long list of films that showcase different aspects of Jewish life around the world, in all its complexity.
This is traditionally great news for us here in Portland, as MJFF has become a highlight of the film year. A major attraction for moviegoers, regardless of their religion or absence of religion, MJFF, with its consistently stimulating and entertaining film lineup and the opportunity to interact with other moviegoers and illustrious filmmakers, is a must-see. . Even when, as so many film festivals have discovered over the past two years, the definition of “assist” must have changed a bit.
“This is our second fully virtual festival,” said Barbara Merson, executive director of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, explaining, just thinking of this year’s festival plans when the Delta variant started sweeping Maine. Like pretty much every film festival since the start of this pandemic (which is still not over, so get yourself vaccinated already), the MJFF has had to adapt. And, like those other festival planners, Merson has learned to find the bright spots where she can.
“Last year’s festival went really well,” said Merson, “We had very high box office and online traffic. Additionally, we found that filmmakers were even more eager to virtually witness Zoom conversations with us and our audiences. Portland is great, but convincing a filmmaker to take a busy week of his or her busy life to come to town is a big request. “
Fair enough, especially since, as always, this year’s MJFF features films and filmmakers from as far away as Israel and Palestine, Morocco, Argentina and Russia. “There has been a steep learning curve over the past year, both for us and for our audience, in planning and attending a virtual film festival,” Merson said. “Now, while we may lack the in-person experience, we’ve learned that overall there are a lot of positives to doing things virtually. “
On the one hand, Merson says the 17 films that make up this year’s festival represent an even more selective screening process than usual.
“We have a slightly higher number of films than last year’s festival, but still fewer than when we did it in person,” she said. “What that means is that our selection committee really had to choose. When you host a live festival, you assume that not everyone will be able to attend every screening, so you tend to schedule different types of films for different audiences in the same time slots. This year, since everyone can watch each movie from their home (and a virtual ticket can be used over multiple days), we could be very selective and pick the best from over 100 submissions.
I asked Merson to pick a few of her favorites from this year’s already meticulously curated list, a process she laughed at as having to “pick who’s my favorite kid.” Still, she’s favored us with several movie choices that she’s especially thrilled audiences watch.
“Persian lessons“, By Ukrainian director Vadim Perelman, is, according to an enthusiastic Merson,” an incredible film. It’s about WWII, but it’s not a typical WWII movie. It’s really about the relationship between language and human connection, as well as being a very suspenseful drama – honestly, I don’t want to say too much. (In deference to Merson’s advice to know as little as possible, I will only add that the title’s “Persian lessons” form a crucial and surprising central vanity, and leave it at that.)
“In your eyes I see my countryIs a completely different film, a documentary about two musicians who travel from their native Jerusalem to their ancestral Morocco in order to reconnect with their cultural and musical heritage.
“The film (by director Kamal Hachkar) focuses on the music of Morocco played and interpreted by two musicians whose parents are from there. I love music, and this movie has a lot to say about the immigration process, what you gain and what you lose over generations, ”Merson said.
The interdependence of marginalized people is reflected in the moving documentary “A crime on the bayou”, A unique and regrettable American tale of bigotry and injustice. The real-life story of the arrest of a young black man in 1966 (for touching a white man in the arm) and of the Jewish lawyer who fought on his behalf against a supremacist Louisiana legal system Jim Crow, the film, Merson said, “talks about the intersection of black history and Jewish history in Louisiana.” It’s a lot about the story of what happened and what is happening.
Merson says Mainers in particular will find a lot to understand in director Isaac Artenstein’s documentary, “Challah rising in the desertA surprisingly turned and insightful examination of New Mexico’s small but vibrant Jewish community. “There’s a braided challah bread made from green peppers in the movie,” Merson said, “and if that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what makes it. There are many similarities in the experience. Jewish from Maine and New Mexico, in the way communities come to a place and absorb, but also add to the culture.It’s an extremely engaging film that I think the people of Maine will identify with.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course, with this year’s festival offering a typically eclectic and intriguing roster. The drama “200 metersExamines the ordeal of a Palestinian couple forced to live on either side of Israel’s separation wall. “Hollywood and WWIIDocuments the efforts of Jewish immigrant filmmakers William Wyler, Billy Wilder and Anatole Litvak to bring their cameras to war. And the captivating documentary “Love was notTells the story of a Jewish woman who survived a concentration camp thanks to the attentions of a German officer – and her decision to testify at the officer’s war crimes trial.
“Number one, we’re always on the lookout for great movies,” Merson said of the annual selection process. “There is always a balance between fictions and documentaries, and our selection committee always seeks a balance, because our audience is very diverse. This year, says Merson, that process has seen MJFF gravitate toward that diversity, both in subject and in point of origin. “With people not as comfortable traveling at this point, we looked to get people to places they weren’t really going to go, with many different countries and languages all represented. “
For Merson, the mission of the Maine Jewish Film Festival remains consistent, regardless of what external considerations (such as a global pandemic) say. “We want to enrich, educate and entertain. Maine’s Jewish community is small, and I hope people who aren’t as aware of it and don’t often interact with it will learn something about us and the global Jewish experience. These are important and universal themes – family relationships, the experience of being a stranger – and it’s our mission to give people a shared and immersive experience.
The 23rd Maine Jewish Film Festival runs until November 14. For more details on MJFF, this year’s films and guest speakers, and to purchase individual tickets or the always-cheap festival pass, visit mjff.org.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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