At Jewish film fests, lights, camera, controversy!
In this second part of a four-part series, Haaretz looks at how Jewish film festivals are dealing with movies that paint the Jewish State in an unflattering light.
One of the most buzzed-about films on the Jewish film festival circuit this year is a documentary that exposes child sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community of Baltimore, Maryland. "Standing Silent" is about the campaign of one such victim – Phil Jacobs, the former editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times and current editor of the Washington Jewish week – to bring these cases to light.
Some Jewish film fests, however, preferred to keep quiet. The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, for example, decided to pass on “Standing Silent.” Fest Director Hilary Helstein, in an email passed on to the media, said the pic had been rejected because it was not an expose, but “more of a witchhunt.”
Cue the tit for tat. In a livid response, which was also splashed across front pages in the Jewish press, the film’s producer Scott Rosenfelt called Helstein a “disgrace” and threatened to tell everyone he knew to boycott the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. His words, like his rolodex, carry weight: Rosenfelt is a veteran filmmaker whose credits include “Home Alone” and the Julia Roberts-toplined “Mystic Pizza.”
This is not the first time the Jewish sprocket opera circuit has been rocked by internal controversy.
Three years ago, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival came under fire for its decision to screen the documentary "Rachel," about Rachel Corrie, the young American woman killed by an IDF bulldozer when she refused to move from a Palestinian home in Gaza that was slated for destruction.
The fest took heat not just for showing the film, but for inviting Corrie’s mother to speak at the event. Some long-time festival supporters felt the presence of Corrie’s mother, who along with Corrie’s father sued the IDF following the death of her daughter, more scandalous than the film itself.
In response to the outcry, some major donors pulled their funding and many of its top staffers were forced out. To this day, says Jay Rosenblatt, who took over as program director in 2010, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is still agog.
"We're still struggling and feeling the impact," says Rosenblatt.
The Rachel Corrie affair, he insists, has not caused the festival to shy away from controversial films, noting that a chunk of this year's lineup address the hardships of the Israeli occupation, among them Sundance darling "The Law in These Parts" and the Palestinian-centric "My Neighborhood."
But they haven’t been blindly inserted on the docket. "We do have to think, though, about how we present these films," says Rosenblatt.
Most festival directors insist they are guided chiefly by artistic considerations and do not prioritize "feel-good" films when making their annual selections. Still, the bottom line beckons. Filling seats and selling tickets while at the same time exposing audiences to provocative films often requires a delicate balancing act. It has become especially challenging in recent years when many of the films coming out of Israel – many of them acclaimed at prestigious international festivals – do not portray the Jewish State in the brightest light.
"Lately I find that many of the Jewish film festivals are looking for films that will sell and not so much the cutting-edge films they were after in the past," says Hedva Goldschmidt, who runs Go2Films, a leading distributor of Israeli films based in Jerusalem. "They want comedies, light films, films that make Israel look good."
Although Goldschmidt says she would never promote a film she views as "anti-Israel," she also doesn’t favor pics that paint over Israel’s complicated picture with strokes of milk and honey.
"I'm always on the lookout for films that give expression to the complexity of life in Israel," she says.
Neil Friedman, who runs Menemsha Films in Los Angeles, a distributor of primarily Jewish films, agrees that there has been a shift in the market. "For the opening nights of film festivals, they'll do anything now not to have to show a documentary. All the funders are there on the opening night, so they're looking for something with a happy ending, something almost traditionally Hollywood,” he says.
Friedman says he's concerned about the tendency to censor films that may not appeal to mass audiences. "To me, it's devastating," he says. "By not showing these films, they're making a political statement as well."
Howard Elias, founder and director of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, minces fewer words. His fest, he says unabashedly, is proudly right-wing.
"The Chinese see enough of the bad stuff that goes on in Israel on the BBC – I see my job as countering that," he says.
Although Elias believes that "Standing Silent" is an important film, he says he wouldn't program it during his annual festival, when a large chunk of the audience is not Jewish, because "I don't see the point in airing the dirty laundry in public." But he says he would consider recommending a special screening of the film that targets the Jewish community exclusively outside of the festival.
Isaac Zablocki, who runs film programs at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, feels fortunate that his New York audience tends to be open and tolerant. He holds off from judging his fellow festival-makers, especially those working with tougher crowds.
"The curators know their audiences, and every festival has the right to select its own films. Some want to challenge their audiences, and some want to make them feel good,” Zablocki says.
The JCC in Manhattan has come under fire from more conservative Jewish groups in recent year for launching "The Other Israel Film Festival," which showcases films by and about Israel's Arab minority.
"Our feeling has always been that festivals aren't only about screening films but about sparking conversations, so we always like to bring a speaker to help along with that when we have a controversial film," Zablocki says.
And sometimes showing that controversial film can be a way of supporting Israel and the Jewish people. At least that’s what Susan Barocas, the long-time director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, thinks.
"When you bring up something painful and then let people talk about it with experts or the filmmakers, the film then becomes a tool for learning," she says.