Jewish Film Festivals during COVID: Adaptability and Resilience

Gordon Haber

The pandemic was a potentially disastrous time for creators of all kinds, but we think it’s fair to say that it was especially devastating to film. Pretty much every aspect of it, from filmmaking to moviegoing, is communal, and communal doesn’t work well with COVID-19.
But when we looked into something close to our hearts at CANVAS — Jewish film festivals — we found that like many Jewish stories, it’s been complicated, but it’s also been about adaptability and resilience. 

Challenges create opportunities.

Many Jewish film festivals happen in February and March, which gave us the chance to ask what lessons they’d learned. 
Kenny Blank, Executive Director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF), said that the crisis prompted them to remember that “at the end of the day, it’s all about serving the community.” 
The AJFF “embraced the opportunities of virtual,” but holding drive-in screenings helped preserve a sense of moviegoing communality. (We attended a couple of drive-in screenings this past spring and found them incredibly fun.)
For many, a mostly online format felt like a huge concession. But it came with some pleasant surprises: the AJFF had “greater access to international filmmakers and actors than ever before.”
Lexi Leban, Executive Director of the Jewish Film Institute (JFI), which runs the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), made similar points.
“With everything in this pandemic there’s a challenge and an opportunity,” said Leban. 
“The 2020 festival went entirely digital. We made all the programs free, so people who were struggling wouldn’t have trouble attending. But almost everybody made a donation.”
Leban is enthusiastic about the coming 41st SFJFF, which boasts more than fifty films, almost all viewable online between July 22nd and Aug 1st. And there will be in-person showings at the magnificent Castro Theatre July 24th and 25th.
“It is a stellar program,” Leban said. “I wasn’t sure if we’d get the quality of film we are used to, given the production issues everybody was having. But it is an amazing lineup.”
(We’re particularly interested in two films about fraud: A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, “a meta-musical about the greatest fraud in history”—see featured image above—and Misha and the Wolves, a documentary about an author who claimed to have been adopted by a wolf pack as she fled the Nazis.)
Moving forward, it seems that Jewish film festivals will keep the best bits of the online model, while returning to in-person events as much as possible. 
Kenny Blank said, “For 2022, we anticipate a robust return to movie theaters, while preserving the flexibility of the at-home streaming option.”
Leban agreed, but stressed that “there is no substitute for live screenings with international guests and parties. People want that.”
“Our bottom line is that we are all about championing stories about the diversity of Jewish life,” Leban concluded. “Whatever way we can deliver that mission is great.” 

Still from Misha and the Wolves. See it at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Think globally, watch locally.

San Francisco and Atlanta are two of the biggest Jewish film festivals. But we’re not exaggerating when we say that there are Jewish film festivals in practically every city in the United States, if not North America. And every last one of these festivals pivoted in some way to streaming.
Of course there are Jewish film festivals in expected places like New YorkLos AngelesChicagoHouston, and Miami. But there is also AlbuquerqueBoca RatonDenverHartfordLouisvilleMobilePhoenixPioneer ValleyRehoboth Beach , SacramentoSan DiegoSavannah, and Seattle. (We’re sure we missed more than a few).
Jewish film festivals aren’t limited to the U.S. There are world-class Jewish festivals in Toronto and Vancouver; Montréal mixes it up with an Israeli Film Festival. Mexico has the Festival Internacional de Cine Judío.
We urge you to peek at your local festival, as many have year-round events and screenings.

What to see now.

Here’s what’s coming up this summer with films that you can stream from wherever you live:

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