Curtain going up on virtual Jewish Film Festival

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Think you missed this year’s St. Louis Jewish Film Festival?

Actually, no, because the film fest that usually takes place in June will run Monday through Nov. 15, back-to-back with the Jewish Book Festival. And like the book festival, the film festival will be virtual.

“We do not want to skip a year,” said Jeffrey Korn, one of the festival’s three co-chairs.

Zelda Sparks, director of cultural arts at the Jewish Community Center, said: “The best laid plans for the June film festival were kind of upended by the pandemic. We had just finished our process of previewing films, which started the previous September. The committee probably viewed 40, 50 films. We kiss a lot of frogs until we get the prince.”

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Some highlights of this first virtual JFF will include “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” a wonderful documentary about the beloved musical; “Incitement,” a chilling thriller/drama about events before the 1993 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin;  “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” a fascinating documentary about baseball player-turned-spy Moe Berg; and “Shared Legacies,” a timely look at the longstanding partnership between African American and Jewish communities through the civil rights era to the present.

Many of the 12 films will have discussions after the screenings. Several of those discussions will be led by the films’ directors.

“For a lot of the discussions, and maybe this is because it is virtual, we were able to get the filmmakers,” Sparks said. “We are a smaller festival. We always try to get someone who can talk about the film  but, generally, we don’t have the budget to bring in a lot of the filmmakers. But this year, the filmmakers are so happy to be able to talk about their film” via Zoom.

An interviewer will talk with each speaker to facilitate the discussion.

Co-chairs Korn, Marilyn Brown and Paula Sigel, along with Sparks and the festival committee, had already done most of the work to plan the festival when the pandemic shut down events all over the country. So, they adapted, moving the festival to November and making it completely virtual.

“We had already viewed and selected our films by the end of March,” Sigel said. “We usually start viewing in September and watch new films two times a week until March. We fill out an evaluation sheet after viewing each film on a scale of one to 10. Any film eight or higher is considered for the festival. We then brainstorm and try to come up with a varied and interesting lineup.”

This is the 25th annual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival but the first one without Natalie Kauffman, the longtime film selection committee chair, who passed away late last year.

“We are dedicating the 2020 St. Louis Jewish Film Festival to the memory of Natalie Kauffman,” Brown said. “She really was the film festival. She dedicated hours upon hours of her time contacting distributors and other festivals around the country asking for films to preview. Then she personally watched every single film she received. She is greatly missed by everyone who worked with her and loved her.”

This year, the Jewish Film Festival overlaps with the annual St. Louis International Film Festival, Nov. 5-22. (The book festival usually does overlap with SLIFF.)

SLIFF usually has “a sidebar that has films of interest to the Jewish community,” Sparks said, which is the case again this year.

However, because all three festivals are virtual, movie and book fans will not have to choose among them because households will be able to access all of the films on their own schedule. Sparks worked with Cinema St. Louis, the organization that presents SLIFF, to be sure that the festivals did not have duplicates, and she credited SLIFF with helping point JFF organizers toward the viewing platform SLIFF is using for the festival.

Film fans can buy tickets for the Jewish Film Festival’s individual movies or take advantage of an All Access Pass that gives access to all of the films anytime during the duration of the festival. Six of the films also have a free discussion via Zoom, at a specified date and time.

“Viewers will have the opportunity to watch films on their own schedule,” said co-chair Sigel. “As soon as the festival starts, if you have the All Access Pass you can watch films in any order and time. You only need to remember that once you start a film, you have 48 hours to finish it. And you need to be aware of films that have a discussion to make sure you watch that film prior to the discussion time.”

Tickets for individual films cost $14. A festival All Access Pass costs $95 and allows one household to watch all of the films in the festival. They can be purchased, films can be watched and online tech support is available at events.jccstl.com. Once a ticket or pass is purchased, an email will be sent with instructions on how to unlock the films. Live help also will be available during the festival.

“Films can be viewed on phones, laptops, notebooks, computers or TVs,” Brown said.

Sparks and Sigel said one of the bonuses of a virtual festival is that family members in different parts of the country could also buy tickets and watch the same films, which Sigel heard many families are doing.

“We can share our lineup with friends and family anywhere in the United States,” Sigel said.

The discussions are free, live events, with a Q&A component, on the Zoom app.

More information is available at the JFF website, stljewishfilmfestival.org.