Annual Rutgers Jewish Film Festival Presents In-Person and Virtual Screenings
DRAMATIC LOVE STORY: The Polish film “March 1968” makes its East Coast premiere at the 23rd Annual Rutgers Jewish Film Festival in North Brunswick on November 3. At the screening, director Krzysztof Lang will speak about the film, which is about antisemitism in 1960s communist Poland.
By Anne Levin
With films in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Catalan, Russian, French, Polish, and German, the 23rd Annual Rutgers Jewish Film Festival is decidedly international in scope. Festival Director Karen Small and colleagues watched 150 films before coming up with the final 15, 10 of which are being screened at the Regal Cinema in North Brunswick October 30-November 6. Eight more are available virtually November 6-13.
Due to the pandemic, the festival was mostly virtual during the past two years. Being able to get audience members back in the theater together makes a difference.
“As someone who reviews the films and is also director of the festival, I have seen many of the films on my home TV and then on a big screen with an audience,” said Small, who is also the managing director of Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, which sponsors the festival. “It adds so much. When you’re watching together, you laugh at the same places. You are part of the audience reaction, and it changes the experience.”
The festival begins October 30 with Cinema Sabaya, in Hebrew with English subtitles, the only feature being shown both in the theater and virtually. “This is a lovely film about Israeli and Arab women taking a film production class together. It’s about how being behind a movie camera helps them talk about their lives and hidden emotions. The whole film is about this class,” Small said. “They’re from all different backgrounds. It recently swept the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, and is Israel’s nomination to the Academy Awards.”
Opening day will also feature Love and Mazel Tov, described as “a German rom-com” in a press release about the festival. The film will be followed by a talk by guest speaker Markus Krah, executive director of the Leo Baeck Institute. “For many of the in-person films, we have the filmmaker or a scholar on hand to talk about it after the screening,” Small said. “That adds a whole other dimension to that behind-the-scenes experience.”
Another screening that will have its director in attendance is March 1968, a Polish drama making its East Coast premiere on November 3. “This is such an interesting slice of history that is really not well known,” said Small. “It’s a drama based on a young couple, and through their eyes, we see this antisemitic anti-Zionist purge going on, under the Communist government. Jews lose their jobs, and are basically kicked out of the country.”
Shedding light on a new or unknown story is a goal of the festival. “Many of our films don’t make it to theaters or streaming platforms,” said Small. “Someone said to me that they love watching a film at the festival and then being able to talk about it with people they might run into. All kinds of conversations emerge from being part of this. And that’s what we’re trying to encourage.”
Among the other highlights is How Saba Kept Singing, about the late David Wisnia, who survived Auschwitz by entertaining his Nazi captors with his beautiful singing voice. Produced by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, the film follows the journey of Wisnia and his grandson Avi Wisnia back to his hometown and Auschwitz, where long-held secrets are revealed. Wisnia, who died last year at 94, was cantor for Har Sinai Hebrew Congregation in Trenton (now in Pennington) for 23 years.
Following its screening on November 6, the film will be screened for public middle-and-high-school students as part of the Bildner Center’s Holocaust education program. Avi Wisnia will be on hand to speak to the students.
Other films focus on such far-ranging topics as singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, the practice of conversion therapy for ultra-Orthodox gay men in contemporary Israel, efforts to save the Dead Sea from drying out and disappearing, and the fight to include Orthodox women in the Knesset (Israel’s legislature).
“The festival has been around for 23 years, and it is has really become an institution in New Jersey,” said Small. “It is a cultural opportunity where people come together for this shared experience, to see Jewish life on film. But it’s not just Jewish life. It’s really all kinds of experiences seen through a Jewish lens. Anybody can come and participate. It brings the community together, and there is strength in that.”
For a full list of films, visit BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu/film.