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In Focus: ‘The Rabbi Goes West’ goes online

Amy Geller and Gerald Peary
Amy Geller and Gerald PearyCourtesy Big Sleeps Films

Documentary filmmakers face many obstacles, from scrounging up funding to finding venues where their work can be seen. Resourceful and resolute, they persevere. But the COVID-19 crisis has presented them with previously unknown challenges and frustrations. As festivals shut down and theaters close, where can they show films that often have in some cases taken years to complete?

Cambridge filmmakers Gerald Peary, former critic for The Boston Phoenix and curator of the Cinematheque at Boston University’s College of Communication, and his wife, Amy Geller, former artistic director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, are co-directors of “The Rabbi Goes West.” They found themselves in just such a quandary. They had spent 2½ years in Montana filming the story of Chaim Bruk, a Hasidic Chabad rabbi from Brooklyn who has pledged to put a mezuzah on the door of every Jewish household in his adopted state. The finished film is droll, layered, and thought-provoking; and the rabbi himself is a natural for the camera — funny, candid, and charismatic. Peary and Geller had started showing the film at festivals when disaster struck.

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“We were doing excellently,” recalls Peary. “We had three screenings in Israel and in the US and Canada with positive audience reactions. We had our New England premiere [last fall] as the closing night film of the Boston Jewish Film Festival with a packed house at the Somerville Theatre. We were going full steam, with nine screenings set for March, five more for April and May. But the coronavirus ended it all.”

With public screenings closed, one option that had been taken by the Brattle and Coolidge Corner theaters and other venues was to present films in an online “virtual cinema.” Peary and Geller approached the Independent Film Festival Boston and suggested they collaborate in presenting “The Rabbi Goes West” this way, along with a live Q&A.

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“Amy and Gerry Peary are both alumni of IFFBoston,” says Nancy Campbell, the IFFB’s programming director. ‘We screened ‘The Guys Next Door,’ which was co-directed by Amy and Allie Humenuk, in 2016 and “For the Love of Movies,” which was directed by Gerry, in 2009. Gerry also appeared as an actor in Andrew Bujalski’s ‘Computer Chess,’ which we screened in 2013. They are both longstanding and important figures in the local film community and are supporters of IFFBoston. It is natural that we would want to return their support and amplify their work.”

Though the shutdown has had a devastating impact on the documentary film community, it has also confirmed its solidarity and mutual support. “There are so many documentaries stopped in their tracks,” says Peary. “Everyone is scrambling, trying to figure out what to do. But I believe that documentarians as a group are a kind, socially concerned group of people. Everyone we know in the field is being generous with information and ideas about how we can all get back on our feet.”

Geller hopes that the adjustments imposed by the ongoing emergency might encourage documentary filmmakers to find new outlets for their films online and ultimately the crisis might result in more opportunities for distribution and exhibition. “There’s nothing like seeing a film on a big screen among movie-loving strangers,” she says. “It’s a spiritual experience for Gerry and me. We miss that terribly. But sharing the film online could potentially reach an even wider audience. The challenge is getting through to folks who are being bombarded with online content. We don’t have the marketing budget of a Netflix, HBO, or Amazon. For us, word of mouth is absolutely key.”

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In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of the present time, Geller and Peary and IFFBoston are still planning for the future.

“Our plan B is to postpone to a safer time when we can best celebrate and share stories and storytellers with the community and put on the festival at the Brattle, Somerville, and Coolidge Corner theaters — our partner venues who have supported us for so many years,” says Campbell.

Rabbi Chaim Bruk in "The Rabbi Goes West."
Rabbi Chaim Bruk in "The Rabbi Goes West."Courtesy Big Sleeps Films

Peary and Geller already have another subject lined up. “We’re exploring an incredible little-known story of how 16 rabbis answered an appeal in 1964 from Martin Luther King to help in desegregating St. Augustine, Fla.,” says Peary. “The rabbis were all arrested and jailed for their peaceful, non-violent actions. We are looking for donors who would like to support this activist film project.”

As for the redoubtable subject of their new film, Rabbi Chaim Bruk, the pandemic has not diminished his zeal and resourcefulness. “Rabbi Chaim’s Chabad home community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has been hit very hard, and, in fact, Chaim has lost an uncle and friends to COVID-19,” says Peary. “His shul is shut down in Montana, and he abides by regulations. But nothing can ever stop Chaim from getting the word out about Judaism. He had already been livestreaming on Facebook regularly long before the pandemic. He’s a master of social media.”

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“The Rabbi Goes West” will be streaming on Vimeo on Demand, May 24-June 4. Also, IFFBoston will host a live Q&A on YouTube with the filmmakers and subjects on May 31 at 8 p.m. bit.ly/montanarabbi

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.