The 32nd annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival is set to begin May 16. And while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep much of the community closed for business, as the old proverb goes, the show must go on.
To that end, this year’s festival will be held in an online format, according to Sara Qureshi, The Gordon Center for Performing Arts’ program director, arts and culture.
“Our patrons’ safety and security are always our first priority, whether in person or virtually,” Qureshi said. “Rather than coming to the film with 500 people at The Gordon Center, our film patrons will have the opportunity to view the films from the comfort and safety of their own homes.”
As the Gordon Center is only 25 years old, Qureshi said, the festival actually predates the venue that, normally, it would have been held in. The film series will consist of 10 films running from May 16 to June 8. An 11th film, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” is “presented adjacent to the festival in partnership with our sponsor North Oaks,” Qureshi said. While tickets for this film are free, registration will still be required.
At specified dates and times, ticket holders will receive a link to stream the movie they have selected, Qureshi said. The movie will then be viewable by ticket holders for a 48-hour window. The festival will also feature opportunities to discuss a number of the films via Zoom meetings with guest speakers, with these meetings largely being scheduled approximately 24 hours after a particular film is available for streaming.
The chosen 10 films were whittled down from a preliminary list of 60, Qureshi said, adding that the “film selections are diverse in terms of genre, country of origin, content, and perspective.”
Sara Shalva, the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s chief arts officer, provided a detailed explanation of the selection process. “The selection committee votes on films, and all of that information is analyzed,” she said. “The films that are highest rated are then watched in person at the JCC.”
After discussing each film’s merits, the final film selection is held in late fall, followed by a general announcement of the films ultimately considered for the 10 available slots.
The committee members that make these selections go to great effort to get the selection right, according to Shalva. “The festival planning process has always engaged the volunteer committee in a very immersive way,” she said. “The committee, full of lifelong cinephiles, spend the year reviewing and talking about the films, working to ensure that they will appeal to our audience.”
The first film in the series, “Golda’s Balcony, The Film,” consists of the “archival capture of acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh’s performance as Golda Meir in Broadway’s longest-running one-woman show: ‘Golda’s Balcony,’” Qureshi said. It tells the story of Golda Meir’s rise from a simple Russian schoolgirl to Israel’s prime minister, with Feldshuh herself playing no less than 45 different characters.
Other films Qureshi’s noted were “Flawless” and “The Keeper.”
Available for streaming May 23, “Flawless” is a 2018 Israeli drama focused on transgender issues and coming of age during high school. According to the film’s synopsis, after “enrolling in a new school, 17-year-old Eden discovers that her two new best friends are planning to sell their kidneys to pay for cosmetic surgery and prom dresses … Things don’t go as planned, and when Eden’s secret is revealed, they must all come to terms with their prejudices and who they really want to be.” The digital live discussion will be held on May 24, with guest speakers Abby Stein and Jo Ivester, and is made possible in part by funding from JPride Baltimore.
A few days later, on May 26, “The Keeper” streams into your home theater. Set in England during and after World War II, it tells the true story of Bert Trautmann, a German soldier who, after being captured by the British, is recruited as the goalkeeper at Manchester City.
When the decision to allow him to play outrages fans of the game, Trautmann is unexpectedly defended by one who escaped Nazi tyranny: Rabbi Alexander Altmann. A virtual discussion on the film, with guest speaker Christopher Reed, chair of the Film & Moving Image Department of Stevenson University, is scheduled for May 27.
In addition to serving as a forum for artistic discussion, Qureshi views the live discussion sessions throughout the festival as an opportunity to build connection between people, something particularly important as the coronavirus continues to create physical separations.
“As a festival, we are not just streaming films but building community,” Qureshi said, adding that the virtual format might actually help to widen that community in terms of geography, number, and age range. “We acknowledge that our normal audience in past years tends to be on the older side,” she said, “and we hope that this year we will have a broader audience age range.”
She encouraged parents and grandparents to consider purchasing tickets for children or grandchildren who may no longer reside in the Baltimore area, so that they can continue to have the opportunity to experience the art and culture emerging from Baltimore’s Jewish community.
Qureshi also wished to emphasize that the festival is working to make the Zoom discussion sessions safe for users through registration and waiting rooms. “We mention security concerns only because patrons have mentioned what they’ve heard in the media about Zoom bombing and other safety issues,” she said.
Qureshi also stressed that Baltimore’s festival was but one part of a greater whole. “There is a wide network of Jewish film festivals all around North America,” she said. “It is a very connected community, connected with their local JCCs or as their own nonprofit
organizations.” Each festival has its own unique character, with some having their own theaters and some taking place throughout the year, she said.
When asked about the Jewish community’s contributions to filmmaking, Shalva made clear how seriously she takes the subject.
“As I look back on my own interest in Jewish art and culture, there are so many places where I felt I was consuming art that really spoke to me and my soul,” she said. “I’m a big fan of poetry and creative writing, and when I find a talented writer I feel like they have a direct line to my soul.”
For Shalva, art represents a connection to Jewish tradition.
“Jewish tradition is a tradition based on storytelling and evoking emotional response to real and imagined events,” she said. “To me, creating art is one of the ways we act in God’s image. Creative expression is an act of creation, just as much as planting a [seed], raising a child. Writing a poem, writing a song, we are acting in the image of God when we do those things.”
Tickets for the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival can be purchased at JCC.org/gordon-center/film.