Oftentimes, identifying a Jewish movie can be simple: The Jazz Singer, Yentl, even The Ten Commandments.
Others have Jewish characters or themes, though considering them Jewish movies is a bit more of a stretch: Schindler’s List, Meet the Fockers or 2005’s Walk on Water come to mind. But what about those films that have Jewish characters, or what might considered a “Jewish sensibility”? This is the question organizers of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival grapple with each year.
“Some are just so obvious: the Holocaust, Israel, Palestinian issues, and the building bridges between two cultures,” says Michele Tesler, co-chair of the committee within the American Jewish Committee that runs the film festival. “There’s a wide range, and again it gets down to ‘it’s not just Jewish content for Jewish content, but what message does that film send to the audience?’”
Tesler cites one film in this year’s docket, Steel Toes, featuring David Straithairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as a Jewish lawyer who represents a skinhead in a hate crime. “It’s a compelling story. These are real issues,” Tesler says. “How does a real Jewish person do that, and look at the legal side and the civil rights, and the rights of someone for fair trial?”
Pamela Lavitt, the festival’s director and curator, says, “there’s a kind of high watermark when you’re watching and screening films that it suddenly registers as Jewish.”
That marker could be a Passover seder or just being on the streets of New York, or characters who are obviously Jewish.
With those criteria satisfied, at least for Diaspora films, Lavitt says. “We’ve hit the marker, okay, let’s move on. It can be about anything.”
Part of how the committee decides what makes a film Jewish is based on the AJCommittee’s own mission of bridging cultures.
“Every year we try to define our mission and goals, and I think our mission is still the same, which is to educate both the Jewish and general communities about the diversity of the contemporary Jewish experience in both an entertaining and enlightening way,” Lavitt says.
Oftentimes those goals have to shift based on the quality and availability of the films.
“Since 2000, we have had an outcropping of different kinds of…expressions for being Jewish in the world. Those include things that are sort of hip, disaffected Judaism,” Lavitt says. “I think that our audience at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival may be demographically less inclined toward that. But the films that we’re seeing are expressive in that direction.”
The festival committee has made a point of looking beyond Jewish film festivals for its content, to film festivals like Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, and right here at home with the Seattle International Film Festival. What Lavitt says they have found is that these festivals mark some films as Jewish, though the reasoning is not always clear.
“Let’s look at this film, Hermanas — Sisters — from Argentina,” Lavitt says. “Both are from a Jewish family. Other than that, there’s very little mention of being Jewish in their world. But when I called the filmmaker, and I spoke to the distributor, from an Argentinean perspective this film is in situ [in situation] in its background…. It is about the baiting of the Jewish intellectual left in Argentina.”
To overcome what Lavitt says was “a glitch” in the global perspective of the film, the festival is flying in director Julia Salamonoff to explain the film’s Jewish sensibility.
“She can help us build that bridge of understanding about being Jewish in the world,” Lavitt says. “If we hadn’t gotten her to come, I’m not so sure we’d include the film.”
Because it is a committee that chooses the films, there may not always be agreement on what makes each individual work Jewish.
“Every committee member brings a different perspective to a film, as well as opinion about the film,” Tesler says. “It’s a group discussion and group decision as to what constitutes Jewish content and the appropriateness of the film for the festival.”
The rules change when it comes to Israeli films. Lavitt described What a Wonderful Place, a winner in Israel’s Academy Awards, and the official submission to last year’s American Academy Awards. It focuses less on religion or culture and more on what Lavitt calls “national identity issues.”
“That film is about Russian immigrant women and the perspectives on how Israeli society absorbs them, how they end up…in an underworld of not-so-pretty characters,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the most beautiful face that you could show, but at the same time it [shows how] Israel is absorbing or dealing with its immigrant cultures. I think that’s very interesting, as American Jews, to look at how democracy functions in Israel.”
Another similar film is Shadya, about an Arab Israeli girl — a karate champion — who represents Israel but must face pressures from her own culture. Though not particularly Jewish, “it deals with how she situates herself in terms of nationalism, in terms of gender roles, and how it has to do with the territories,” Lavitt says.
Tesler notes that one of the festival’s purposes is to give non-Jewish filmgoers a better understanding of Jewish religion and culture.
“We look at ourselves as ambassadors to the community at large,” she says. “Jews and non-Jews alike can know what some of the issues are that Jews are facing.
“We’re not isolated, we don’t live in a bubble, and everybody is affected by that.”
“We feel like it’s not only incumbent upon us, it’s part of our mission to ensure that we expose our audiences to [Judaism], and that we get first dibs at having a conversation at how we are represented in popular culture, in the media,” she says. “It needs to be in our festival for our community to look at it and discuss it.
“If Borat were not in the biggest media, I would say that film should be in our festival, because we need to talk about that film,” she says. “I think our mission as the American Jewish Committee is actually to get people talking about subjects in a respectful environment, where it’s safe to discuss the more thorny issues of Jewish life.”