By Bob Jacobson
The annual Baltimore Jewish Film Festival returns this year, from April 11 to May 13, with a roster of 10 films — five from Israel and one each from Norway, Germany, Italy, Latvia and the United States.
Sara Qureshi, the director of the film festival, touted the geographical breadth of the selections. “We’ve been all over the world,” she said.
This is the first time the festival has shown films from Norway and Latvia and the first appearance of an Italian film since 2006.
As in 2020, this year’s festival will be totally virtual. “We realize that it’s different from watching on the big screen,” Qureshi said, “but we want to be creative and still give it a special event feel this year.”
While the pandemic has presented challenges for previously in-person film festivals all over, Qureshi prefers to emphasize the opportunities of the new format. Prior to 2020, the Baltimore festival averaged 400 people per film screening at The Gordon Center for Performing Arts. Last year, with virtual programming, film showings averaged 350 households, but many had more than one person viewing the film (at no extra charge). Last year, 15% of the audience came from outside the festival’s typical geographical reach, Qureshi noted. In addition, while demographics in pre-pandemic years have skewed toward senior citizens, last year’s audiences included more members of working age.
This year’s lineup includes three family-friendly films, Qureshi said. Educators have advised the film festival staff and selection committee that two of the films — “The Crossing” and “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” both centered on children in the Holocaust — are appropriate for children as young as sixth grade. “Shared Legacies” — a documentary on Black-Jewish relations in the civil rights movement and up to today — is appropriate for youngsters in eighth grade and up. All three of these films will be followed by virtual live discussions with guest speakers. Uta Larkey, Holocaust scholar and associate professor at Goucher College, will speak at discussions for “The Crossing” and “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.” Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Rev. Terris King of Liberty Grace Church of God will speak at a discussion for “Shared Legacies.”
These kinds of post-film conversations were very well attended in 2020 and went on longer than those in pre-pandemic years, Qureshi said.
“During isolation, people were hungry for that connection,” she said. “The festival is not just about business. We want people to see these movies, and our mission is also to build community.”
In addition, three of the Israeli films in this year’s series, all made in 2019, will be followed by virtual live discussions with their filmmakers. These films are “Ma’abaro,” a documentary on the history of Israel’s transit camps for immigrants; “The Art of Waiting,” a comedy/drama about a couple in their 30s struggling with infertility; and “The Dead of Jaffa,” a drama about Israeli Arabs illegally hiding three young siblings from the West Bank.
Now in its 33rd year, the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival is “in the oldest cluster of Jewish film festivals,” according to Qureshi. The oldest is in San Francisco, which held its first Jewish film festival in 1980. Today, there are about 200 Jewish film festivals worldwide, with the majority in the United States. Each Jewish film festival is unique, Qureshi said.
“If you look at cities similar to Baltimore, I would venture to say that [their film festivals] don’t look like ours,” she said.
It takes a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes to bring the film festival to the public. Qureshi, now in her third year as director, collaborates with an all-volunteer selection committee of 26 “deeply engaged lifelong cinephiles.” In a typical year, the committee views 60 films. (This year, with fewer films being produced due to the pandemic, they screened about 40.) Each film must have Jewish content or be of Jewish interest. Films are generally new. If films are on major streaming platforms, they will not be considered.
To select the films, committee members first review trailers. Some of the trailers have been submitted, while others are solicited if they have been shown at other festivals. Committee members watch each movie once, compile a slate of contenders and complete numerical evaluations. Then a final selection is made. This year, Qureshi convened “movie minyans” of selection committee members over Zoom.
Film festival staff and committee members seek a broad geographic representation of films, but typically the series has one or two American films and two or three from Israel.
They also value diversity of genre, Qureshi said, usually resulting in two to three documentaries per year. The mix of films tends to be drama-heavy, according to Qureshi, because that is what is produced, but last year the
film festival had an unusual number of comedies. This year’s festival includes comedy/dramas from Israel.
Sarah Levitas, now in her fifth year as a selection committee volunteer, describes herself as a lifelong film lover.
“I used to be an avid [Turner Classic Movies] watcher,” she said. “I’m very interested personally in things that have to do with the Holocaust. I like to see foreign films, especially Israeli. I like that this exposes me to lots of films I wouldn’t see ordinarily.”
Her favorite films in the upcoming series are the Norwegian film, “The Crossing,” and the German film, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.”
“The Crossing” is “a beautiful story about two Jewish children who are helped by non-Jewish children, visually very beautiful with the Norwegian countryside,” Levitas said. “It’s so wonderful to even be able to see a Norwegian film.”
Levitas also extols the Italian drama, “Thou Shalt Not Hate,” about a Holocaust survivor’s son, played by Alessandro Gassman, “a successful doctor who is completely isolated in his personal life,” Levitas said. The film is “really about people going through struggles, connecting and forging relationships.”
Asked if she received feedback on last year’s series from audience members, Levitas said some attendees told her that they appreciated the convenience of having a 48-hour screening period for each film, during which they could start and stop the film and watch them from anywhere.
“Everyone should try to find at least a couple of movies and support the festival,” Levitas said. “The films are very interesting. More than one member of your household can watch. It’s a win-win.”
In addition to this year’s film festival, the Gordon Center will be showing films outdoors in the warmer months.
More information about the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival can be found at jcc.org/gordon-center/film.
Bob Jacobson is a freelance writer.