The Swedish Jewish Film Festival, the first of its kind in Europe, was the brainchild of Dr. Dan Grander, a cancer specialist from Stockholm interested in promoting and sharing Jewish culture. But he couldn't have pulled off the idea, he says only half-jokingly, without the help of local neo-Nazis.
"We had put in a funding request with the Swedish National Cultural Fund to set up the film festival, and it really didn't look we were going to get the money," he recalls. "Just at that time, a group of Swedish neo-Nazis tore down some tombstones in the Jewish graveyard. It made big news, and suddenly, it became very important to provide us with funding. The neo-Nazis don't even know what they started."
The film festival he launched became so popular, says Grander, that today people fight for tickets a year in advance. Since its establishment 20 years ago, about two dozen other Jewish film festivals have sprung up around Europe.
There, and in other places around the globe, it is individuals with a passion for Jewish or Israeli culture who are often behind these initiatives. Some, like Grander, also have full-time day jobs and no professional background whatsoever in film.
Howard Elias, a Canadian-Jew who founded the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival 13 years ago, is a marketing consultant. "I started this festival because I wanted to see Jewish films, and there was no other place to see them," he says.
The festival, which attracts large Chinese audiences ("They want to learn our secrets," remarks Elias) has grown each year and become what he calls my "full-time expensive hobby."
Over on the mainland, Eytan Tepper plans to launch the first ever Beijing-Shanghai Jewish Film Festival this coming October.
"While I was on vacation in Israel, I met a friend who works at one of these festivals, and I said to myself, 'Why not set up one in China too?'" explains Tepper, who is pursing a doctorate in law in China. Even though China has just a tiny Jewish community, Tepper is confident the festival will draw audiences. "The Chinese are very interested in the West and have a special interest in Israel and the Jews," he says.
Eran Bester is an Israeli banker who used to represent Bank Leumi in Canada. Frustrated by how Israel was being portrayed in the Canadian press, he established an Israeli film festival in Montreal in 2005, after moving back to Tel Aviv, and several years later, brought the event to Toronto as well.
Nicola Galliner, a British Jew, set up the Berlin and Potsdam Jewish Film Festival 18 years ago, inspired by a program someone had handed her from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which gave her the urge to do something similar. The significance of running a Jewish film festival in Germany is not lost on Galliner, who understands that it is not only the films that make her festival a huge media event every year. "I don't think any other film festival in the world gets this sort of response," she says.
Galliner, who calls the festival "my second child," is not one to shy away from provocation. The poster commissioned for this year's festival used graffiti-style lettering to evoke Nazi propaganda and the 1938 law banning Jews from attending the cinema, but in a complete departure from messages of the past, the following words were written in glaring yellow script against the poster's black background: "Mehr Juden ins Kino" (“More Jews to the Movies”).
Linda Seligson runs the Jewish film festival in York, Pennsylvania, which still has an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan. She calls hers the "most selective" Jewish film festival in the world. "We get about 100 submissions but only show three films each year. Unlike many other [festivals], we don't have endowments or underwriters. We have to do this by selling tickets."
About 40 percent of the audience members at the York Jewish film festival are non-Jews. "For us, there's a sense of pride in being able to do this," says Seligson. "We see this as the face we present to the outside world."
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