This coming weekend, Jewish culture and expression will be the stars at the New Vic as the second annual Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival (SBJFF) gets underway. From Thursday, March 23, through Monday, March 27, folks can steep themselves in Jewish culture by way of movies made in countries around the world, including Hungary, The Netherlands, Germany, Israel, and the United Kingdom.
The program was culled from more than 100 submissions, which, according to SBJFF co-chair Mashey Bernstein, gave them “an abundance of riches” from which to choose. So difficult was it to whittle down the roster, in fact, the festival board decided to expand the number of offerings this year. “Last year we did 10 programs, and this year we are doing 13 because these are great films and we didn’t want to lose out on showing them,” said Bernstein.
It may seem oxymoronic to say that a niche film festival covers wide-ranging subject matter, but it’s true nonetheless. For example, this year’s slate explores themes that range from “circumcision, the religious rights of women, and the diversity of Israeli life to issues of sexuality, questions of who is a Jew, and the role of memory,” according to Briana Sapp Tivey of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara.
Of the process, Bernstein noted that only the films that received a unanimous vote from the selection committee made it into the festival. “We decided every movie on the slate had to be approved by everybody. If someone didn’t like it or there was strong objection to showing it, we would not show it,” he said. “One of the most controversial ones will be The Settlers. It’s about the people who settle on the West Bank and the hilltops; we went back and forth on that one quite a lot. It’s very politically a hot potato, so we wanted to be sure that we could position it correctly and that we would have the right sort of context for it. So we are bringing in the director, and also there will be a discussion afterward so people can [talk about] what they’ve just seen.”
Another standout, according to Bernstein, is 1945, which tells the story of two Orthodox Jews whose arrival in a Hungarian village forces the denizens to come to terms with the ways they profited from the deportation of their Jewish neighbors. “This Holocaust movie [is] almost like a Hitchcock and Polanski film combined. It’s shot in wonderful black-and-white,” said Bernstein.
Also included in the festival lineup is Time to Say Goodbye (Germany), a comedy about circumcision; The Women’s Balcony (Israel), which follows Jerusalem women vying for a place in the synagogue; On the Map (Israel), which tells the true story of the Israeli National Basketball team winning the European Cup in 1977; and Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? (Israel/U.K.), a documentary about an ex-Israeli paratrooper who comes out as gay and joins the London Gay Men’s Chorus.
What makes a film festival so enriching is the aspect of audience engagement; so for those who ask, “Why go to a festival when I can see this film at home on Netflix?” Bernstein’s response is: “We are going to give you an experience you can’t get at home. We are able to bring in directors [and] actors and have discussion groups. When we show Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, we are having a gay men’s chorus sing, as well.” Say no more! —Michelle Drown
411 The Jewish Film Festival runs Thursday-Monday, March 23-27, at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). For tickets and more information, call (805) 957-1115 or see sbjewishfilmfestival.org.