When filmmaker Michal Goldman launched in 1989 what she thought would be a one-year event of Jewish films in Boston, her program included “a 30-minute film from a young Palestinian director that was critical of the Occupation.”
“I got threats, direct and veiled. Many withdrew funding,” Goldman recalls. But the purpose of the festival was to offer a comprehensive look at the entirety of the Jewish experience. “We are not all one stripe,” says Goldman, insisting that “always, we have to look at [the Israel-Palestine conflict]. The festival provides a safe place to do that — and we must.”
That artistic independence and commitment to diversity still drives the Boston Jewish Film Festival as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. Running Wednesday through Nov. 18, the festival will screen 46 films — 40 are Boston-area premieres — from 13 countries. Subjects range from the little-known history of Jews in Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria to the LGBTQ Jewish experience. There are a pair of documentaries about women’s history: Lilly Rivlin’s “Esther Broner: A Weave of Women” and Michal Aviad’s “Women Pioneers.” And, yes, films that deal with relations between Israelis and Palestinians (“Bethlehem” and “Within In the Eye of the Storm”).
“The initial intent was to be independent, and independently funded, and to program films that create the opportunity to engage, discuss, and provoke,” says Amy Geller, who became the BJFF’s artistic director last year. Over the course of the past quarter century, the BJFF has become one of the largest such festivals in the country and works with other fests to “uncover the best Jewish films out there,” says Geller.
The excavating takes her to festivals from Berlin to Haifa in search of “hidden gems.” She sees upward of 300 movies a year from around the world but is just as committed to work produced in her own backyard. “As a documentary filmmaker, I’m interested in the incredibly rich documentaries here in Boston. I’ve happily been able to find three or four films this year that reflect and promote strong films from Boston,” she says.
These include “Unorthodox,” about three American Orthodox teens (screens next Sunday at the Institute of Contemporary Art) from Boston directors Nadja Oertelt and Anna Wexler, who met as undergrads at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the mockumentary “Your Good Friend” (next Sunday at the Coolidge Corner), with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, formerly of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley; and “The Dewey Stone Connection: From Exodus to Independence” (the closing night film, Nov. 17, at the Museum of Fine Arts) about a Zionist philanthropist in 1940s Brockton.
Like many successful ventures, the BJFF had an unassuming, grass-roots beginning. Goldman founded the Boston Filmmaker’s Collaborative in 1987 after she made her first film, “A Jumpin’ Night in the Garden of Eden,” about klezmer music. She wanted to follow up on an event she had put together in 1988 when she screened two classic Yiddish films at Boston University. “We had to put out extra chairs, so many people came. I was amazed at the appetite for this material,” says Goldman, who had worked as a film editor in San Francisco, home of the oldest and largest Jewish film festival. She credits Bo Smith, then-curator of film at the Museum of Fine Arts, with helping her realize it was possible to curate an independent festival that examined how “Jewish identity is conceived in as many countries as possible.”
As a filmmaker, Goldman’s interest is in storytelling and point of view, which put a personal stamp on the festival that continued as she passed the reins after a few years to Kaj Wilson and Sara Rubin. Coming full circle, Geller became artistic director last year, returning to the BJFF, where she had worked fresh out of Bates College, in Maine.
“I hired her when she was young and gazelle-like, obviously bright and eager, and I’ve watched her develop. I am one of her many sounding boards,” says Goldman, who also cites founding board member Shoshana Pakciarz and longtime trustee Barbara Resnek as other important influences on the BJFF’s maturation. Both women will be honored at the festival’s Silver Celebration this Sunday, at the Ritz-Carlton.
Geller’s mission now is to honor tradition while building for the future. The BJFF boasts year-round programming with its Encores series and its ReelAbilities Boston Disabilities Film Festival. This year’s BJFF aims to cultivate new audiences, with several family films and FreshFlix, a program aimed at 20- to 40-year-olds. FreshFlix includes the third annual short film competition (the audience picks the winning shorts by text voting). FreshFlix also features the first BJFF midnight movie: the hit Israeli thriller “Big Bad Wolves.”
“Israel, in particular, is exploding with adventurous cinema; that’s always been true but it’s at a peak now and this represents an opportunity to show that,” says Geller. “I’m also committed to films from Germany and France. . . . We consider ourselves discoverers and smaller festivals look to us for films. It’s why people come back and believe in us.” She cites the double feature of “Holocaust: Is That Wallpaper Paste?,” from Russia, and “Judith and the Man From Schindler’s List,” from Germany, as films that “create a context and a framework for trying to understand the Holocaust for future generations.”
Context and historic connection are also evident with the first BJFF Community Leadership Award this year, which recognizes Lisa Simmons, founder of the Color of Film Collaborative and co-producer of the Roxbury International Film Festival. Geller says it’s significant that the inaugural award honors Simmons, who is “part of our film community — not Jewish, but as a community leader dedicated to social justice.” The award presentation next Sunday at the Coolidge Corner will be followed by a screening of “The Last White Knight,” Paul Saltzman’s personal documentary about the civil rights movement in the South and reconciliation.
“The Boston Jewish Film Festival’s commitment to screening impactful and high-quality films over the past 25 years sets a standard for all of us curating festivals here,” says Simmons. “I am deeply honored to receive their first Community Leadership Award and look forward to participating in this celebratory year.”
For this milestone festival, it’s natural and useful to look back, but Goldman agrees that the festival must always look ahead too. “It’s not my festival anymore. Amy really has brought great new energy. I think this year’s programming is adventurous and that’s what the festival needs,” she says. “There’s no point in doing it unless it opens your eyes, makes people curious and eager to think about who they are and their relationship to Jews in other parts of the world.”
Go to www.bjff.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kaj Wilson’s name and the title of the film, “Within the Eye of the Storm.”