Shelley Hendler, a member of the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival steering committee, hopes participants will truly wrestle with the content and meaning to be found in this year’s films.
“I love a film that is provocative, so that it motivates somebody to learn more about a subject area, to grapple with a topic that’s being presented,” said Hendler, a resident of Reisterstown and member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “So that’s really a primary goal, is that you want people to leave there and really think about what they’ve seen and grapple with it.”
This year’s festival includes 10 separate films with Jewish themes or content, selected from a wide variety of genres and countries, said Hendler. The members of the festival’s committee worked laboriously for around half a year to sift through dozens of entries before arriving at what they determined to be the cream of the crop.
The festival will take place over five weeks from April 25 through May 29. This will be the third year in which the festival has been held fully virtually, said Sara Qureshi, the film program director at The Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts. Each week, two films will be available for streaming for the duration of that week. For five of the films, a live postfilm discussion will also be held over Zoom; ticket holders are invited to participate in the discussions with filmmakers or prominent members of the community.
The festival is currently in its 34th year and actually predates the Gordon Center itself, which opened in the mid-‘90s, said Qureshi, a resident of Woodbine. She added that, of all the Jewish film festivals across North America, Baltimore’s has one of the largest volunteer selection committees.
Hendler noted the insightfulness the individual committee members bring to the selection process.
“Many members of the committee, I would say, are very scholarly, and they bring tremendous insight into the films, both in terms of looking at the content, but [also] in terms of technical appreciation for the film,” Hendler said.
Hendler has been involved in the festival for the past five or six years, and, as a member of the board of directors of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, she also serves as a liaison between the board and the festival’s committee.
When putting together an initial list of films to consider for the final list, the festival looked at a number of different criteria. For starters, the films needed to have a U.S. release date no more than two years before the festival, said Qureshi. They also focused on films conceivably more difficult to gain access to, such as films generally not available on major streaming platforms. And of course, the festival looked for films “of Jewish interest,” a criterion that Qureshi readily admitted had “a fairly broad definition.”
They also valued having a diverse array of films from different genres and countries and with different content and perspectives, including everything from dramas and documentaries to comedies, Qureshi said.
“We want to have a variety of shows, so we want to have some documentaries,” Hendler said. “We were cognizant of the Holocaust content and World War II. We like to have different countries of origin [and] unique stories.”
Films placed on this initial list for consideration included those discovered by committee members while researching other festivals, as well as movies that filmmakers or distributors directly asked Qureshi to consider.
The process of selecting a final list of films is organized into three tiers, Qureshi explained. In the initial tier, normally beginning in early July, committee members evaluate and score the individual films. Since the switch to watching the films virtually in the last few years, each committee member has been watching all of the films on that initial list, Hendler said. She estimated this can be between 40 and 50 films, a process that begins perhaps a month after the conclusion of the previous festival.
“It’s a big commitment, the people on the committee … are real movie lovers,” Hendler said. “These people are really passionate about films, and we watch a lot, a lot of movies in the hope that we can bring the Baltimore community the most interesting and unique films.”
Films that score well proceed into the second tier, which involves what she called “movie minyans,” group discussions on the films and their merits, which have been held virtually during the COVID era. In the third tier, ballot voting is used to determine the final selection sometime in December, unless the committee received a film so positively and unanimously that its approval was self-evident.
“Even if the films we screen are not selected, I have … heard so many unique stories through film, that it’s been very enriching personally just to learn so much through the films,” Hendler said. “I mean, I was always a real avid reader, but the world of film offers so much in terms of increasing knowledge.”
In past years, the number of comedies the festival would include tended, on average, to be between one and none, Qureshi noted. This year, however, of the 10 films on the final list as many as three could be considered comedies, and one more a dramedy, she said. She speculated that, due to the pandemic, there may be a greater desire for levity, including on the part of the film industry itself.
“I know that that was something that our committee was actively hoping for, and were pleasantly surprised when there was a strong field of comedies to share with our viewers,” Qureshi said.
When asked about her favorite films that made the final cut, Qureshi highlighted “Neighbors,” which she said revolved around the experience of its director, who grew up in the disputed regions of Kurdistan in the 1980s.
“There is a very brilliant child actor portraying a fictionalized version of the director, who leads a stunning cast,” Qureshi said.
For her part, Hendler noted the film “Persian Lessons” and “Wet Dog,” calling both of them “really very interesting.” “Persian Lessons” follows a Belgian Jew in a concentration camp who lies about being Persian, and then is ordered to teach the Persian language, which he does not know, to a camp officer. “Wet Dog” focuses on a Jewish-Iranian teen who strives to fit in when his family moves to a Berlin neighborhood.
Hendler was particularly excited for the postfilm discussions, viewing them as what sets the festival apart from a simple trip to the cinema.
“Those programs to me are what distinguish going to a movie from attending a film festival, because you have an opportunity to go deeper and gain further insight into the development of a film or into the storyline of the film,” Hendler said. ”You have these opportunities to expand your appreciation for the film.”
Qureshi hopes that participating in the festival will give viewers a greater sense of being part of a community.
“One of the core elements of the festival’s mission is that through film, we are building community,” Qureshi said. “So there’s the shared experience of viewing the same movies around the same time, but also coming together to have those conversations and to see the films that were selected by members of our community for members of our community.
“I would say that what we would like to have people take away is not just the intellectual and emotional engagement of viewing high-quality films, but that experience of being part of our film community,” Qureshi added.