The Boston Jewish Film Festival, which turns 30 this year, has grown so much since its modest beginnings that it’s not even just a film festival anymore.
The BJFF launched in 1988 when filmmaker Michal Goldman screened two classic Yiddish films during a weekend at Boston University. It’s now part of Boston Jewish Film. This multifaceted organization produces several programs, including the ReelAbilities Film Festival; Boston Jewish Festival 360, which screens films year-round; and the Boston Jewish Film Studio, a program that introduces students citywide to films and filmmaking.
The centerpiece remains the BJFF, which runs Nov. 7-19 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Coolidge Corner Theatre, West Newton Cinema, and other area venues.
Not only has the BJFF provided attendees with the opportunity to discover Jewish-themed fiction films and documentaries from around the world, it has premiered works that went on to win Oscars and international acclaim, including Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” (2002); Caroline Link’s “Nowhere in Africa” (2002); and Laszlo Nemes’s “Son of Saul” (2015).
“It really started as a way for the Jewish community to come together and watch Jewish films,” says Jaymie Saks, BJFF executive director for the past 10 years. Saks will exit the festival after this year. “Certainly over the past 30 years, even the past ten years, the community has changed so much; the definition of what it means to be Jewish has changed so much; Jewish culture has seeped into the surrounding culture. Now we get a diverse mix, a broad audience, so it’s a way to present a lot of universal messages and issues,”
Saks will be honored at a gala fund-raiser Nov. 4 at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School. Past and present board presidents Shoshana Pakciarz, Judy Ganz, Joyce Pastor, Denise Widman, and Barbara Resnek will also be feted.
Ganz, a longtime member of the BJFF board and its chair from 2002 to 2009, remembers being part of a small group in the early years that watched and selected titles for the festival. “We all loved film but we realized we weren’t critics so we hired Kaj Wilson, who did everything when she started,” says Ganz. Wilson served as the BJFF’s artistic director for more than a decade, until 2007. The board hired Sara L. Rubin as executive director, in 1997; her tenure that lasted until 2008. Rubin was also the artistic director, from 2009 to 2011.
Continuity has been a hallmark of the BJFF onscreen, too. Many filmmakers have returned over the years, with the festival’s robust shorts program providing a launching pad for features, both scripted and documentary. The gala’s guest of honor is Nancy Spielberg, a film producer and Steven’s sister. She brings her latest documentary, “Who Will Write Our History,” to this year’s festival. Spielberg and director Roberta Grossman’s documentary, “Above and Beyond,” played the BJFF in 2014. Their new film documents a secret band of community leaders, called the Oyneg Shabes, that in 1940 buried photographs and testimonies of Jewish residents just days after the Nazis sealed the Warsaw Ghetto.
With a legacy of women in leadership positions, it’s not surprising that the BJFF regularly includes a substantial number of films by female directors. Artistic director Ariana Cohen-Halberstam cites as a personal favorite this year the Israeli drama “Working Woman,” from director Michal Aviad. Her short “Dimona Twist” was featured in the BJFF last year. Cohen-Halberstam calls it “very much on the pulse, politically.” It’s about Orna (Liron Ben Shlush), the main breadwinner for her three children, whose new real estate job is jeopardized when her boss begins to make inappropriate advances.
Another film with relevance to current events is Ruth Beckermann’s documentary “The Waldheim Waltz,” which tracks the allegations against Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary general and suspected Nazi, as he made his 1986 bid for the Austrian presidency. The succession of accusations was followed by denials, an outbreak of anti-Semitism, and finally, Waldheim’s election.
Also notable is Israeli director Tsivia Barkai-Yacov’s intimate drama “Red Cow.” Set in an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, it follows the sexual awakening of a teenage girl named Benny (Avigayil Kovary) who finds herself attracted to the self-confident Yael (Moran Rosenblatt, who starred in “Apples From the Desert,” which screened at the 2015 BJFF). Benny’s widowed father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) leads a right-wing group whose extremist views forbid homosexuality.
Barkai-Yacov’s husband, Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, co-directed the BJFF’s closing-night film, “Redemption.” “We weren’t trying for a family affair,” says Saks. “The Israeli film industry is small.”
In many ways, the BJFF is both a family and community affair. “At 30 years, we’re not just an audience of people coming to this festival like back in the ’80s. The original audience is now bringing children and grandchildren,” says Cohen-Halberstam. Looking to the future, the BJFF now screens kids’ films under its BJFF Jr. program. This year it’s Don Bluth’s animated immigration-themed classic, “An American Tail” (1986). For the first time, there’s a film aimed at teens, Israeli director Marco Carmel’s “Almost Famous.”
Bringing a diverse audience together to share universal stories is what will keep the BJFF growing and thriving, says Cohen-Halberstam. “By putting a film in our festival, we’re drawing out the Jewish element and we’re able to have a conversation that might be different from the conversation you’d have if you watched the film at home on Netflix.” “Not that these are films likely to be available on Netflix. That’s one more reason to be grateful for the BJFF.