The 2018 Maine movie festival season kicks off in its traditionally big way on Saturday with the start of the 21st annual Maine Jewish Film Festival.
The festival, which has now been one of the mainstays of the Maine film calendar for over two decades, has only grown, both in size, duration (this year’s fest tags on an extra Sunday, ending on March 18), attendance and ambition. Made up of more than 30 films from around the world, this year’s roster once again offers moviegoers a lovingly curated, eclectic collection of features, documentaries and short films centered on the Jewish experience in all its complexity.
I talked to the festival’s executive director, Barbara Merson, about the films and themes that make up this year’s festival.
With the Maine Jewish Film Festival now heading into its third decade, has anything changed about how the festival is programmed?
It’s always changing, but what we’re looking for, number one, is a good, engaging film, of course. At this point, it’s a mixture of filmmakers coming to us, asking us to show their films, and us looking at other film festivals and certain distributors. It’s mostly still us just keeping our antennae up and getting the best possible films. In all, we generally end up watching well over 100 films in order to pick the best 30-plus. That said, we’re always looking to new subjects and geographical areas. For example, this year, we’ve got a great South African film called “An Act of Defiance.” Set in 1963, the documentary is about Nelson Mandela’s arrest on conspiracy charges. What you may or may not know is that Mandela was tried with 10 other people, most of them Jews who were very involved with the resistance movement against Apartheid. But the prosecutor was also Jewish, so it’s a little bit on both sides. The film is absolutely gripping – I mean, we know Mandela survived, but the film really keeps you on the edge of your chair thinking, I don’t know how the defendants are getting out of this.
How important is it for the festival to respond to real-world issues that might be more topical in a given year? For example, the documentary “The Jerusalem Dream,” about Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel, was that chosen because of the current controversy about Israel’s plan to deport many African immigrants?
Actually that was more coincidental. We’re just looking for excellent films, and this is a little bit of an untold story. Ethiopian Jews are part of the reality of Israel, but not everybody knows what these people went through to get there. It’s very moving – some of them walked there from Ethiopia. We just felt it was a story people should know about. Plus, there’s a resonance with the immigrant experience in Maine, and we’re showing the Maine-made short documentary “From Away” before the film, which is about two African immigrants’ stories coming to Maine. But each year, in watching all the film submissions, we always do find themes emerging. We watch, and we pick, and then – lo and behold – we usually find out there are themes that are on the filmmakers’ minds. This year, coinciding with the “Me Too” movement, there was a little bit more of a women’s theme, of strong women, and women and girls’ empowerment.
What are some of your favorite examples?
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” is another one of those untold stories. Hedy Lamarr was this beautiful, glamorous movie star who was a Jewish refugee from Austria. She was also an inventor with this unusual mind who created the idea of variable frequency transmissions, which is the foundation for a whole lot of present-day technology. It was just hard for people to get their heads around, like, you don’t get to be Hedy Lamarr and be brilliant at the same time. (Laughs.)
Also, there’s a documentary this year called “Heather Booth,” about one of the foremost community organizers around social justice since the civil rights movement, a Jewish woman whose commitment grew out of a trip to Israel she took as a teen.
Speaking of current events, a press release sent in advance of this year’s festival specifically mentions the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Semitism in America since the 2016 presidential election. How can a film festival respond to such alarming events?
Part of the festival’s mission as a whole is to show films based on the global Jewish experience, and to show them to a diverse audience. Last year, 51 percent of attendees didn’t identify themselves as Jewish, and we feel like, by showing these films, people will understand a little bit more. Because generally when people understand, it’s harder to be anti-Semitic. As part of that, we’re always proud to bring in speakers, both from away and from Maine, filmmakers and those from Maine-based community organizations. People with expertise to talk about the films and the themes involved.
What are some other highlights of this year’s festival you can’t wait for people to see?
Our two opening night films both deal with a theme I’d call “post-Holocaust,” in that they don’t dwell on what occurred during the war, but take it from there and examine what happened afterward. “Bye Bye Germany” is about a group of guys in a displaced persons camp who are very smart, very engaging, and maybe not totally on the up-and-up. The film really gives a sense of how life went on – it’s a really great film. And then there’s “1945,” which is a real film buff’s film. In black and white, it follows the motif of strangers coming to town and things happening around them in a way that’s gripping and suspenseful. Right after the war, it’s about a Hungarian village, and shows another way of saying well, the war’s over, so what happens now?
Then, we’ve got two big anniversaries. Curious George was created 76 years ago (a year late, she acknowledged) by H.A. and Margaret Rey, German Jews living in Paris during the German invasion, who escaped one step ahead of the Nazis on bicycles with the manuscript. We’re having a free showing of the animated “Curious George” film (featuring the voice of Will Ferrell), as well as a new documentary, “Monkey Business: The Story of Curious George’s Creators.” Also, it’s the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, so we’re celebrating “West Side Story,” both with a showing of the film, and with the documentary “The Making of West Side Story,” which shows Bernstein conducting. It’s both educational and quite entertaining. And, since, back then, movies were long enough to have intermissions, we’re bringing in the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus to lead a sing-along with songs from the film. Music and dancing – just a great way to celebrate.
The 21st annual Maine Jewish Film Festival takes place from Saturday to March 18. The festival has expanded its screening venues this year to include showings in Brunswick, Lewiston, Waterville, new venues Rockland and Bangor, and, of course, right here in Portland. Check out the website (mjff.org) for locations, times, tickets and descriptions of this year’s crop of typically outstanding, thought-provoking films.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday-Sunday: “24 Frames.” Master Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami died in 2016, leaving this meditative, stunningly beautiful movie on the interconnected power of his two passions, filmmaking and photography.
Tuesday: “Birthright: A War Story.” The fight for reproductive rights in America is brought into stark relief in this searing documentary about conservative efforts to re-criminalize abortions – and the women who choose them. Co-presented by Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, Maine Family Planning, The Maine Women’s Lobby and the ACLU of Maine.