Behind the screens

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Roughly 7,000 people attended the JCC Ames Amzalak Rochester Jewish Film Festival in 2018.
(Photo courtesy of RJFF)

Andrea Miller believes the collective experience of watching a film continues to wield its magic. The director of the JCC Ames Amzalak Rochester Jewish Film Festival is excited for the community to engage in Jewish culture and heritage July 7-14.

In its 19th year, the Jewish Film Festival has come a long way since its launch. This year has a collection of films from 18 countries on a variety of topics. Miller, who directed the first festival in 2001, answers questions posed by the Beacon on the festival and its longevity.

ROCHESTER BEACON: What are some of the key films this year’s lineup?

Andrea Miller

ANDREA MILLER: This year’s fest has its own personality. I’d describe it as thoughtful with a dry sense of humor. There are 25 extraordinary films from 18 countries on topics ranging from the Jewish food history in Montreal (“Chewdaism”) to the father of Hollywood (Carl Laemmle) to the history of Blue Note records (“It Must Schwing”). There are several films that tell little-known stories from World War II including “Chasing Portraits,” about one artist’s lost work and “The Body Collector,” a dramatized true story about a Dutch reporter who discovered that a well-known businessman had murdered Jews during the war. As always there are several films from Israel. Perhaps my favorite film on this year’s slate is “King Bibi: The Life and Performances of Benjamin Netanyahu.” It is an up-close look at how one man rose to the top. Opening and closing night films are always among the strongest, most moving films of the bunch and this year is no exception with two documentaries about heroes—real-life heroes—Judge Rachel Freier from “93Queen” and Ben Ferencz from “Prosecuting Evil.” Inspiring stories.  

ROCHESTER BEACON: How do you go about picking these films? Why did these make the cut? 

MILLER: It’s a process, a year-long process. There are 18 festival committee members who advise on all aspects of the festival including content. We’ve already got submissions for 2020. These come from established film distributors as well as from independent filmmakers. The committee will begin screening films shortly after the current year’s festival closes. We screen a film every Monday night. With just 52 Mondays and 200-plus film submissions each year, we also hold “marathon” sessions where we hunker down and watch several films in one day. To keep track, committee members are asked to rate films A+ to F. We’ve found that there is value in rating based on two criteria: 1) personal opinion and 2) how we feel the community as a whole will like it. As the year progresses, we periodically take stock and begin an overall ranking. There are very clear “yes” films and very clear “no” films. But the bulk of them fall to “maybe.” We balance documentaries with narratives aiming for an array of topics. The committee is a cross-section of the community: gender, age, observance level, political leaning. It’s in that careful crafting of the committee make-up that we can best program for the entire community.

 ROCHESTER BEACON: The festival has demonstrated staying power. What makes it successful? Has the audience grown and what have you learned over the years? 

MILLER: Back in 2000 when we first began dreaming about a Jewish film festival here in Rochester, we thought we might have something special. Rochester, the birthplace of film and home to a vibrant arts-loving community, seemed the perfect setting. Summer came, we opened the doors, and our community responded in a very big way. The festival had its first sellout that year when more than 600 people came to see “Left Luggage” at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre. That first year we had about 1,500 people in attendance. In 2018 we had about 7,000. Over the years, we learned that our community wanted more. We had 12 films that first year, now we have between 25 and 30 films and we are still selling out many of the screenings with an average attendance of 270 per film. This festival is to many, their way of celebrating and learning about their culture. It’s personal to so many. People see familiar stories, stories that reflect their own lives, and that feels good to them. They also learn about aspects of the Jewish culture that they never knew about. There’s a magic, still, to the collective experience; to being together, particularly in the current world climate. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: Why do we need festivals like yours in Rochester? 

MILLER: Just last week, Sid Rosenzweig, a film festival committee member since the festival began, was asked to write a message to the JCC membership addressing this very question. He said it best, so here it is:

Movies were first seen by single individuals looking one at a time into a peep-show device. Watching pictures move back then may have seemed like magic, but it was a private experience. It was only when those pictures were projected onto a screen so an audience could watch them together that the real magic was born. Movies are meant to be a shared, communal experience. We watch them on a larger-than-life screen, sitting in a big, dark room, surrounded by strangers and perhaps a few friends. We laugh together, cry together, sometimes get scared out of our wits together. Other times we’re just puzzled, made to think as well as feel, and maybe ask one of those strangers, “Did you understand it?” We hear so many empty clichés about our “common humanity.” Yet we can always find it in an ordinary movie theater. And today, when the world often seems about to fracture under the weight of fear and hate and violence, recognizing that common humanity is more important than ever. So, yes, we need film festivals. And we especially need Jewish film festivals. They’re not celebrations of Jewish culture; they are Jewish culture, and they help us educate ourselves and the world about our shared history and values and challenges. They remind us who we are and why we matter. 

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