The Boston Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary. What started as a weekend of a few Israeli films screened at Boston University has grown into the 12-day festival that has become an annual event in Boston. The organization has also just rebranded as Boston Jewish Film (BJF). The new name is meant to reflect its wider mission. Ariana Cohen-Halberstam, BJF’s artistic director, recently told JewishBoston: “People think of us as the Boston Jewish Film Festival, but we’re a year-round Jewish film organization. The name change says that.”
According to Boston Jewish Film’s executive director Jaymie Saks, BJF is now the largest film-based organization in New England, welcoming more than 15,000 attendees annually to its festival. “We’re also one of the oldest and most prestigious Jewish film festivals in the world,” she said. “We host screenings, multimedia presentations, live podcasts, music and dance performances, discussions with filmmakers and ReelAbilities Boston—the city’s disability film festival.”
To capitalize on its new name, BJF has inaugurated a full-time program called Boston Jewish Film 360. The initiative indicates BJF’s ongoing programs throughout the year. The organization has also expanded its role in the larger Boston community through the Boston Jewish Film Studio. The studio brings filmmaking and storytelling programs to students in inner city and suburban communities. BJF has been working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston Mattapan Teen Center and will show a short film the students made on the closing night of the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Cohen-Halberstam said this year’s festival, which begins on Wednesday, Nov. 7, has the distinction of hosting more visiting guests from across the globe than ever before. She added that for the first time BJFF is presenting a full day of Israeli television shows at Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. “People are watching various television series from Israel at home, and we’re emulating a living room at the Brattle,” she said.
BJF also hopes to reach multi-generational audiences. The festival is bringing back the classic kids’ movie “An American Tail” and sponsoring concurrent activities for children. An Israeli film called “Almost Famous” will appeal to teens. “We want to meet people where they are, whether it’s in the city or the suburbs,” Cohen-Halberstam said. “Moreover, we want to show them films they want to see.”
She asserted the reason for the new name and logo “was part of an effort to rethink Boston Jewish Film’s mandate. We may be 30, but we’re not getting old. We’re a vibrant and vital organization showcasing music, television shows, documentaries and films that are cutting-edge. So many of our films have been at prestigious film festivals in Toronto and New York.”
Added Saks: “We take pride in exposing the entire community to Jewish culture. We provide intriguing insights and thoughtful conversations on contemporary Jewish themes, which are global in nature and affect communities worldwide.”
BJF’s rebranding was unveiled earlier this week at the organization’s annual gala. It was also an evening to celebrate Saks’ impressive decade-long tenure as the organization’s director. She will be leaving BJF at the end of December.
As she accepted awards from the BJF board, Saks noted that people could watch a film on their phones or in their living rooms. “But the point is community,” she said. “Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds come together in person to laugh, to cry, to discuss and, this week, to console each other. Technology may change, but the need for people to have shared a communal experience will stay. In these times, especially with the past week we had, it is more important than ever that we come together to hear each other.”
Following Saks’ remarks, filmmaker and producer Nancy Spielberg joined Barbara Grossman, professor of theater at Tufts University, to discuss making Jewish films and Spielberg’s latest venture, “Who Will Write Our History.” The film, shot in Poland, tells the story of historian Emanuel Ringelblum’s heroic efforts to capture the horrors of daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Ringelblum recruited a stable of writers, activists, teachers, rabbis and others to document what was occurring in the Warsaw Ghetto. Sixty people kept diaries and saved posters, ration cards and other paraphernalia. The project, which was called the Oyneg Shabes club—the Joy of the Sabbath, because they met on Saturday mornings—dispersed after Ringelblum’s murder at the hands of Nazis. By the end of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the group had amassed over 35,000 pages of diaries, letters, photographs and newspapers. The material was buried in tin boxes and milk cans, many of them recovered in 1946 and 1950.
The film, directed by Roberta Grossman, is a mix of archival footage and staged reenactments in a ghetto that was recreated in Lodz. Half a million Jews were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes archive collected their stories of hunger, disease and death. At one point, the Polish underground smuggled some of the group’s documents to the BBC to broadcast what was happening to the Jews of Poland.
Spielberg said making “Who Will Write Our History” was “a tremendous effort to get every detail right. Everything was extensively researched. When you saw a death certificate on the wall, it was completely accurate. I think we showed that the word was the weapon to tell the Jewish story.” She added that like Oskar Schindler—whom her famous brother Steven immortalized in “Schindler’s List”—Oyneg Shabes members were critical to preserving Europe’s Jewish legacy.
Noted Saks, the BJFF screening of “Who Will Write Our History,” along with other films, invites the community “to go beyond the screen and celebrate the global Jewish experience.”
Find more information about Boston Jewish Film here.