The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival is sure to be a lucky one this year.
Entering its 36th anniversary season — double chai — the festival begins Nov. 5 and runs until Nov. 19. And there will be plenty of programming to satiate every film buff.
There’s a lot that PJFF Executive Director Olivia Antsis is excited about, from bringing the lineup of 33 films to the public to a new, first-ever master class.
With its copartner Penn Cinema Studies, PJFF is bringing in Todd Solondz, an independent filmmaker known for his darkly satirical films, such as his breakout hit, Welcome to the Dollhouse, its controversial follow-up Happiness, and the 2016 release Wiener-Dog. The Sundance prize-winner will present a class that explores his own artistic vision as well as the business side of the industry and how to get a film made.
“This gives the Philadelphia public a chance to experience what it’s like to be in a classroom with this master filmmaker, but also in the setting like a graduate film student would be in,” Antsis said.
The class will be free and open to the public on Nov. 18 (you have to preregister), and Antsis is particularly excited because one of the first independent movies she ever saw was Solondz’s Dollhouse. Having him lead the master class is like coming “full circle.”
She’s also looking forward to the two film and food pairing events during the festival. Guests will enjoy a Berlin-inspired breakfast paired with the documentary Café Nagler by an Israeli filmmaker on Nov. 13. Or, if pasta is more your speed, you’ll enjoy the second food and film event on Nov. 17, for which the owner of an Italian restaurant curated a brunch menu based on dishes he saw in the film Shalom Italia, complete with wine and dessert.
These events provide “a fun way to get more into the story and get a richer experience.”
Antsis is also looking forward to closing night, when a collection of four Israeli short films will be screened.
“We feel that shorts are such an important vehicle for emerging filmmakers to get their work seen, and they’re basically a springboard to a career as a filmmaker,” Antsis said. “You can get funding for a studio film just after one successful short goes through the festival market. So we’re going [to show] four films by or about women, and are all fantastic.”
Two of the shorts’ filmmaking teams will be in Philadelphia for discussion, coming in from Israel and Los Angeles.
The short films are not the only female-centric films being shown. There are documentaries on women like sculptor Eva Hesse, who escaped Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport when she was 3. Or Supergirl, in which a 95-pound weightlifter named Naomi Kutin breaks records in a largely male-dominated sport while also preparing for her Bat Mitzvah.
A few others in the lineup focus on strong female characters, from the feature film Sand Storm, in which a mother in a Bedouin village in the Negev grapples with the traditional roles women play and protecting her daughters, or the story of Moos, about a young woman who just wants to be a theater star.
“Every year, I feel the festival tries to show strong female characters and tries to include as many female directors as possible,” Antsis said, “because in the industry right now, there’s a very small percentage of female directors who are in the studio system. … The more that PJFF can show amazing films that are by women or amazing films with strong female protagonists, that’s really good for our society to see.”
The lineup this year also aligns with values shared by the screening committee, including ethics, justice and peace — though there’s no mandate that “a certain percent of our films [are] about human rights issues,” Antsis added.
“While we do seek out films that inspire our viewers to look outside of their own experience and learn about what’s happening in different communities around the world, a lot of our lineup does happen organically,” Antsis said.
One of festival’s outward-facing films is The Freedom to Marry, which traces the history of the marriage equality movement through first-person accounts. Then there’s the striking documentary Keep Quiet, which follows a man who was an outspoken anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. He discovers he is actually Jewish and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and the film explores how he copes with and eventually embraces his Jewish identity.
The opening-night film, One Week and a Day, follows a middle-aged couple figuring out how to move forward with life after sitting shiva for their 25-year-old son. Infused with humor, it’s another film that landed on Antsis’ list of her top five must-sees.
“They’re doing the best they can to handle a tragic situation, and this director is very unapologetic about this,” Antsis said, adding it’s one of the most honest and sincere films. “People will love this film and really relate to it.”
The films will be screened in various venues in and around Philadelphia, from the Gershman Y to the National Museum of American Jewish History to the Hiway Theater.
“We want to make sure different communities in Philadelphia have access to the film festival,” Antsis said. This accessibility applies to non-Jews as well, Antsis hopes.
“One thing that’s important to our committee is we want everybody to know that this festival is for the whole community, not just the Jewish community,” she said. “A lot of these films may connect to Jewish issues or talk about different pieces of Jewish history or show different aspects of Jewish culture or profile different Jewish personalities.
“But just because it focuses on these themes or Jewish characters, we want everybody to attend the festival, and we try to pick films that have universal themes, subjects everyone can relate to and that everyone can understand and be inspired by.
“When you watch a film, you can understand a world that you don’t inhabit and really learn how to empathize with people that are different from you, and I feel that’s important,” she added. “We always have to open our minds and our hearts and try the best we can to look out for each other and understand one another, and a lot of these films really inspire that.”
For tickets and a full lineup and schedule, visit pjff.org or call 215-545-4400.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740