How the Boston Jewish Film Festival can be a place for healing amid tragedy

Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig in "To Dust," which will screen at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Boston Jewish Film Festival
Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig in "To Dust," which will screen at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

The 30th edition of the Boston Jewish Film Festival kicked off on Wednesday night and runs through Nov. 19, bringing together dozens of films that reflect varied perspectives on the Jewish experience. It’s a time to celebrate for the festival, which over the years has expanded from two days’ to two weeks’ worth of films, and now offers programming year-round.

At the same time — and especially in the wake of last month’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — the festival can serve as a place for community and as an educational tool for the world at large, according to festival artistic director Ariana Cohen-Halberstam.

Q. This is the festival’s 30th anniversary. How has it changed?


A.The festival started 30 years ago when Jewish film wasn’t that accessible to people. It wasn’t like now where you can find films via streaming or some other technology. We’ve had to change and think about what our role is as technology changes.

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Q. What film are you most excited about?

A. It’s always a tough question to narrow it down, especially when you’re the one picking them all. One I would highlight is “To Dust,” which stars Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig, who was the lead in “Son of Saul,” which won the Oscar for best foreign film and played at our festival in 2015. [“To Dust” is] about a Hasidic man whose wife dies. After she dies, he becomes obsessed with the decomposition process of her body, and starts having these nightmares. He goes out to find someone who can explain this process to him, and Matthew Broderick plays a professor at a community college who explains it to him in pretty rudimentary terms, and they come up with this crazy plan to bury a pig — which definitely isn’t a kosher animal — and see what happens. There’s a very dark humor to the movie, which is sort of reminiscent of the Coen brothers. We’ll also have the director, Shawn Snyder, at the festival for a Q&A.

Q. In the wake of the horrific shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh last month, do you feel this year’s festival carries a greater meaning or significance?

A. In light of the attack, showing the diversity and the breadth of the Jewish experience and Jewish history on screen is extremely important. I really do believe film is an empathy tool that gives a window into other people’s lives. After 30 years, it’s hard not to feel like we’re talking to ourselves sometimes. So I hope these films get seen by people for whom this is illuminating, people for whom these films are educational.


At the same time, I think the festival plays an important role for people who have been coming to this festival for years who are looking for community and a place to reflect. That’s a big part of the festival, experiencing it all together. In times like these, I find the festival to be very helpful, and I hope it will be for others as well.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Kevin Slane can be reached at