This year’s Rochester Jewish Film Festival runs July 10 – 17 at the Jewish Community Center’s Hart Theatre and the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theater. The Festival features 20 brand new films from the U.S. and around the world, both fiction and non-fiction, and one revival (Hester Street, a restoration of Joan Micklin Silver’s much loved romantic drama from 1975.)
Loyal Talker reader (and very occasional writer) Sid Rosenzweig has been on the Festival Committee since the Festival began in 2001. (Festival Director Andrea Miller also started in 2001, but she took a few years off, so Sid can claim the longest continuing involvement.) He also writes at least half the introductions and this year wrote all the film descriptions in the program booklet. Here are his answers to our questions about the Fest.
There are Jewish Film Festivals across the country and around the world. They say they show films with “Jewish content.” What does that actually mean?
Great question. Every Festival wrestles with it and no one has a precise answer. We try to keep ours as broad as possible. We say the films should relate in some way to Jewish culture, history, ideas, or people.
It could be simply that the characters are Jewish. I used to say that the characters’ being Jewish had to affect the story (fiction or non-fiction) in some way, but even that isn’t always true – especially in films from Israel. Israeli films don’t necessarily deal with political issues. They’re often just stories about ordinary people who happen to be Jews – but they could be anyone, anywhere. In fact, several Israeli films have been remade in other countries and cultures.
The important thing is while the films should have some Jewish content (however you define it), the audience doesn’t need any. In other words, we want films that appeal to everyone, all audiences.
How did you first get involved with the Festival?
A friend who worked for the JCC knew I teach Film History at SUNY Brockport, had reviewed films on local television and elsewhere, and had made films. She told me the JCC was planning to start a film festival and suggested I introduce myself to Andrea. I did – and have been involved ever since.
You’re a member of the Festival Committee. What does it do?
We’re all volunteers. Our first job is programming the Festival. Starting in the fall, we meet every week, watch at least one film, discuss it, and vote whether it’s a yes, no, or maybe. As we get closer to the Festival and the film possibilities pile up, we might have a few “marathon sessions” where we go through three or more films during one long day. Until Covid we did this in person. Recently it’s been virtual; we watch a film independently, then meet virtually for the discussion.
We try to choose films we think our audience will like. Of course that’s tricky, because our audience is diverse, with a range of tastes. That’s why the Committee is also diverse; its range of taste pretty well represents the audience’s.
After we make the final choices and create the film schedule, we have to prepare for – and work at – the actual Festival. That means doing everything from delivering program booklets to various spots around town, to organizing special events, to taking care of visiting filmmakers, to ushering the audience.
It sounds like a lot of work.
We couldn’t do anything without the extraordinary work of our leaders, Andrea and Marc Cataldi. They’re the only paid staff. She works her head off as Festival Director. His title is Administrative Assistant for the JCC’s Arts + Culture Department, but that doesn’t do him justice. He’s an amazing, multi-talented guy. Among many other things, he sets up all the technology needed for our virtual meetings – and for last year’s virtual festival.
Besides, I love working with the Committee. Being part of it means I’m part of an extended family. That may sound like sentimental slop, but it’s absolutely true: I love the people on it; I especially love that we can strongly disagree about films, but that never affects the affection we have for each other.
I mentioned our range of tastes. I sometimes argue for films others hate, or against those I think are awful and others like. I win some battles, I lose others. But all families have arguments and we really do think of ourselves as a big family. We’ve been there for each other at times that have nothing to do with the Festival.
Any final comments?
This is our first fully in-person Festival in a couple of years. I hope the people who come to it enjoy the films and experience them as an important element of world culture. And I hope they enjoy gathering together again, meeting old friends, making new ones, and being part of the extended family called an audience.
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