The movies have been around for only a century, which is a long time to all of us who grew up going to the cinema, but it is an incredibly short time in the larger history of the Jewish people. Yet, Jews have embraced filmmaking, as both a way of preserving history and for the simple joy of a few hours of entertainment.
Seattle is fortunate to be home to one of the largest Jewish film festivals in the country, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival (SJFF), presented by the American Jewish Committee. Featuring documentaries, narratives, experimental films, and shorts, SJFF highlights films that will both elucidate important issues and delight audiences. This year’s festival, which takes place March 10 through 18, promises to maintain the high standards the audience has come to expect. But as they look ahead to this year’s schedule, many may find themselves asking, What makes a film Jewish?
“It has to have Jewish content” is the simple answer given by Gregg Lachow, the film and program curator for this year’s festival, in its sixth year. Given last year’s film lineup, however, this can cover just about anything, from Ethiopian Jews to baseball to Jews in Hollywood to love during the Gulf War. “The first criterion is, it has to be a great film in some way. And for me that always means artistically great,” he adds.
Lachow’s job is a challenging one, given the expectations raised in past years. But the filmmaker-turned-festival-programmer is up to the challenge. Surprised by the number of films to choose from, Lachow had the task of winnowing this year’s program of about 30 films from over 120 submissions.
One of the fun aspects of SJFF is that other than “Jewish content,” the criteria for selecting films is quite loose. “We’re not as obsessed with the greatest and latest. We can really choose just films that we think people would want to see,” says Lachow. This means that the audience gets to see films that aren’t necessarily mainstream enough for mass distribution but are still important movies. “The content [of some of these films] is just so fascinating and not accessible or available to us in any other format because it’s about, say, a particular sect of Judaism or a particularly closed-off area that you normally don’t hear about or it’s not written about. It’s so interesting that it just makes for a great experience.”
Because the festival runs over eight days, it can encompass many stories and many points of view. “One of the challenges of film is that it’s such an expensive medium both to produce and present. This makes a festival like ours particularly important as we can give voice to many stories that would otherwise go unheard. As people die away, as oral testimony is gone, as people stop reading books more and more, and film becomes such a thing we rely on to know what happened and didn’t happen and why and what is happening, it’s a real problem, who gets to tell the stories.”
One of the themes, continued from last year’s festival, is the idea of “the future of memory.” Perhaps this idea is one of the reasons Jewish people have so embraced film. “I’m particularly fascinated by the relationship between film, memory, and history,” Lachow says. “And I think that’s an issue that, setting the Holocaust aside, is already implicit within much of Judaism, and we’ve always been a people concerned with memory and remembering. And so the connection between Jewish issues and ideas and film is a natural one.”
This year’s festival will be shown at the newly refurbished Cinerama in downtown Seattle. While this provides an incredible venue for showcasing films, it also holds personal meaning for Lachow. The director and producer of four feature films, Lachow premiered his own film “Money Buys Happiness” there with the Seattle International Film Festival in 1999. “It is a phenomenal place to have your film shown, not only visually but aurally, and I’ll never make something sound as good as it sounded in there. I did try to pick films that would live well in that theater. We have some visually great, stunning-looking films that will play really well on that giant screen,” he says.
When asked if there is any film in particular he is looking forward to, Lachow has a hard time picking just one. “I really love ‘The Optimists,’ which is a new film about why and how the Jews of Bulgaria were saved. It’s really great. There’s a filmmaker, Emmanuel Finkiel, who made two films we’re showing, ‘Voyages’ and ‘Madame Jacques sur la Croisette.’ He’s a real artist; he’s a wonderful, wonderful filmmaker. Oh, there are so many. I really do think that every day we’re showing something wonderful in one way or another.”
Visit the Web site at www.ajcseattle.org for updates on the program and for volunteer opportunities. And get ready for a varied week of film. As Lachow contends, “I think every day there will be exciting things up there on the screen that are different from what people thought they were going to see.”
(Jenny Brown is the senior editor for DVD and video at Amazon.com and a volunteer for the Seattle Jewish Film Festival.)