Festival fever

Avi Nesher’s "The Wonders" kicks off the festival’s opening night with two screenings Feb. 27 at the DCJCC. Photo by Sivan Glickman, courtesy of the Washington Jewish Film Festival
Avi Nesher’s “The Wonders” kicks off the festival’s opening night with two screenings Feb. 27 at the DCJCC. Photo by Sivan Glickman, courtesy of the Washington Jewish Film Festival

Jewish cinema usually doesn’t include the most popular or well-known films in the country, but starting at the end of this month, Jewish movies might just be what every D.C. film buff is talking about.

The 24th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival launches Feb. 27, serving as the vehicle for D.C., national and world premieres of Jewish films throughout its 10-day run. Films selected to screen this year will be shown at 11 local venues, including the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, the Goethe-Institut Washington, Adas Israel Congregation and the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville.

Festival director Ilya Tovbis, who has an extensive background in the world of Jewish and Israeli cinema, says that while all film festivals differ year to year in terms of actual content shown, the subject matters of the films change as well.

“We are arbiters, curators and choosers of content, but we’re not the makers of the content,” says Tovbis, whose second year as director involved him narrowing down more than 1,000 entries to a mere 64. “A lot of the strands and the tone just differ from year to year.”


Tovbis says there are certain themes that serve as a zeitgeist each year. This year, instead of a predictable theme like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many Israeli filmmakers seem to be interested in communism and revolution, specific genre-based cinema and smaller stories involving family life, topics that were unheard of in Israeli cinema until a couple of years ago.

But with so many films to choose from, how is it even possible to determine what to choose?

“With any festival you look for qualitative content,” he says. “Is it the kind of film we are proud to present to our audiences? We’re always looking to tell the most diverse story we possibly can and get aspects of the Jewish experience that are less covered than others.” The story, how it’s told and produced, the editing and the cinematography are all elements taken into consideration when choosing what to screen.

Diversity is another important factor. There are several films this year from countries not considered a center for Jewish life, such as South Africa, India and Tanzania. Films by women, people of color and younger filmmakers are also considered, as well as films that experiment with style and animation.

Tovbis, who previously worked with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the New York JCC’s Israel Film Center, says this year there are core differences in terms of the festival’s structure.

“One of the things that I really wanted us to focus on was growing what we loosely call the ‘beyond the film section,’ ” he says, “the point of which being to really grow the festive experience and to provide more outlets for serious conversations or grander entertainment.”

Along with discussions from filmmakers after the screenings, the “beyond the film experiences” include an evening of Yiddish song and tribute to Molly Picon, film discussions at the Library of Congress, an Oscar-viewing pajama party, a cinematic bar crawl, a night of storytelling presented by SpeakeasyDC and the fourth annual Community Day of Education on Arab Israeli Issues.

Regarding what films will be the most popular, Tovbis says he hopes it would be the entire festival.“I’m sure there will be films that are not to everyone’s tastes,” he says. “At the end of the day, I have a personal affinity for every single one.”

It can’t be denied that one highlight will be the D.C. premiere of Fading Gigolo, directed by John Turturro, who stars in the film alongside Woody Allen. The comedy about a bookstore owner (Allen) and a florist (Turturro) who decide to become male escorts, screens at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring March 8, followed by an extended Q-and-A with Turturro.

Renowned Israeli film producer, director and screenwriter Avi Nesher will be the recipient of the festival’s Visionary Award this year. Nesher’s latest film, The Wonders, a contemporary film-noir centering on a Jerusalem street artist and his relationship with a mysterious prisoner, will serve as the festival’s opener with two screenings on opening night at the DCJCC and a reception with Nesher.

The festival also includes a focus on Polish cinema, a theme Tovbis says formed naturally, with screening of films such as The Jewish Cardinal, Ida, Aftermath and Mamele. Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes will serve as the final festival screening at the DCJCC March 9, followed by the Audience Award Winners announcements for best feature, short and documentary.

WJFF, which is considered one of the largest and top Jewish film festivals in North America, is much more than the D.C. community affair that many people think it is, Tovbis notes. In terms of sheer scale, he says, the festival partners with more than 180 domestic agencies to do outreach, has hundreds of financial supporters and more than 100 volunteers. Tovbis only expects it to get bigger and better each year.

“We’re now at a point where roughly 10,000 people attend, and we expect that [number] to actually grow this year,” he says. “It’s very much a community festival, but at the same point it’s not this small thing in one theater that shows a couple of films. It’s really this large-scale international cinema event, with a focus on the Jewish experience.”

For a complete schedule and information on tickets and pricing, go to wjff.org.

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