We might have a way to go until spring finally gets here, but film fans know that March is an oasis in the long Maine winter. That’s because the Maine Jewish Film Festival is back, its momentous 20th season running from Saturday through March 25 at venues here in Portland and satellite showings in Brunswick, Lewiston and Waterville.
For new Executive Director Barbara Merson, the 2017 festival is a new challenge, especially considering how important the annual showcase has become to the Maine film community.
“I’ve been thrilled at the degree to which the festival has been embraced,” Merson said. “I was involved in a large Jewish film festival in Westchester, which had a larger Jewish community. We really didn’t have to look beyond that community for support. Here, in Maine, the festival has always had very broad support, with a lot of people coming to these movies just because they’re interesting.”
Interesting is right as ever, as this year’s festival boasts more than 30 films from all over the world, representing a broad spectrum of genres. The only common denominator is, as Merson says, that the festival’s films all “examine different aspects of the global Jewish experience.”
Here’s the trailer for “Blue Like Me”
“Our dedicated committee of volunteers probably watched over 100 films this year, and the films we chose include comedies, documentaries, thrillers,” she said. “Of the 30 or so we selected, there was a lot of consensus about which films were the best.”
Programming a film festival is a challenge, with each year’s crop of movies introducing new ideas and in different proportions. This year’s festival sees its films loosely grouped into three themed series: “Welcoming ‘The Other,’ ” “Women In Focus,” and “Arts Illuminated.”
“We have a good reputation, and a lot of filmmakers and distributors send us films, plus we look at film festivals all over the world to see films that they’re showing, films we think will resonate with our audience,” Merson said. As far as the annual thematic groupings go, she said it’s more of an organic process than a matter of design, although the festival’s mission prioritizes some important elements each season.
“We set out saying, ‘Let’s pick the best films,’ and, lo and behold, for whatever reason, themes appear,” Merson said. “This year, for example, we got a lot of films with very strong women in them. We also noticed, from the very beginning, a lot of great films that dealt with the issues of immigrants. They’re good films and we would have shown them anyway, but we’re happy to highlight that issue.”
Issues like immigration and women’s rights are at the center of especially divisive debates in this country at present, and Merson said, the Maine Jewish Film Festival’s mission aims to engage in that debate — challengingly, but respectfully.
“You can avoid the divisiveness, that’s what I’ll say,” she said. “Our films cover a lot of divisive topics because of the political climate. The antidote to that is to engage with films with a wide variety of points of view. We want people to have a common experience and then think and talk about some very difficult issues.”
To facilitate the open exchange of ideas, the Maine Jewish Film Festival has assembled its signature impressive lineup of guest speakers, some representing their own films and some culled from the Maine communities of those represented in this year’s movies. This year’s guests include Portland city councilor Pious Ali for the documentary “Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana”; artist Siona Benjamin, subject of the documentary “Blue Like Me”; Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director for GLAD, speaking on marriage equality documentary “Freedom to Marry”; Ferne Perlstein, director of the hilarious and thought-provoking documentary on Holocaust humor, “The Last Laugh,” and many more. In addition, look for a no-doubt rousing musical performance from R&B legend Betty Harris after the documentary “Bang: The Bert Berns Story,” about her partnership with songwriter/producer Berns.
Harris’ performance is emblematic of an aspect of the Maine Jewish Film Festival that Merson wants people to understand — that the festival’s movies are also deeply enjoyable. “We have visually gorgeous art films that are showing at the Portland Museum of Art, intentionally. There are music films with great scores. It’s not all about the heady or intellectual — it’s about the movies,” she said. “We seek to enrich and educate, certainly, with a diverse collection of films about all aspects of the Jewish experience. We’re casting as wide a net as possible.”
Get caught in that net at this year’s 20th annual Maine Jewish Film Festival, happening from March 18th to the 25th. For the full schedule and location of screenings and for tickets, check out the MJFF website http://mjff.org.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday-Sunday: “The Salesman.” From the brilliant Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) comes this harrowing thriller about a happily married couple whose normal life is horribly upended when she is attacked. The man sets out on a “Death Wish”-style vengeance spree, which, one expects, doesn’t go well.
Friday: “The Sense of an Ending.” Director Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”) teams up with old pros Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling for this adaptation of Julian Barnes’ novel about a writer forced to face up to some dark things in his past.