Longtime District-based filmmaker Aviva Kempner says a good Jewish film “is a good film by Jews, about or for Jews. But it’s also for the broader public as well.”
Kempner, the filmmaker known for “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” and “Rosenwald,” among others, also co-founded, with Miriam Mörsel Nathan, the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Headquartered at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, that first experimental D.C. Jewish Film Festival took place 30 years ago this month.
The film festival has evolved into the multifaceted arts program JxJ. This year’s event, beginning Dec. 3, is a virtual festival, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All programming, including 21 feature-length films, two series of shorts, eight pre-recorded music concerts, 19 panel discussions and filmmaker talkbacks, can be accessed on digital devices.
When Mörsel Nathan and Kempner brainstormed about creating a Jewish film festival for the Washington region in the late 1980s, the only model was San Francisco’s, which today is considered the grandmother of Jewish film festivals. A key question the two considered was:
“What makes a film Jewish?”
“It had to be a professional endeavor, of course,” Mörsel Nathan says. “But programmatically, we had a broad definition of the defining vision of the festival: it came down to the subject matter that would be relevant to the Jewish experience.”
From that first festival held at the Biograph Theater, Mörsel Nathan and Kempner focused on Jewish history, Jewish culture, social justice, relationships between various religious groups within and outside of Judaism, Israel and stories of often unsung Jewish heroes.
“It didn’t have to be overtly Jewish,” she says, “and sometimes we selected films you really had to think about it, but there was always something that I felt was relevant to the Jewish experience.”
Ilya Tovbis, current artistic and managing director of JxJ, says about the goal of the Washington Jewish film and music festival, “We’re looking at and experiencing the full breadth of the Jewish experience and identity through film, music and occasionally other components.”
That ethos is evident this year with films like Dani Menken’s “Aulcie,” a Hebrew-English documentary about Harlem-raised pro-basketball player Aulcie Perry, who led Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team to its first European championship, then became an Israeli citizen.
After becoming consumed by a drug habit, he reinvented himself. Kempner put this one on her short list to watch this year, noting a bit of a parallel in the Washington Wizards recent signing of Israeli basketball player Deni Avdija.
Mörsel Nathan enjoys documentaries, and among her top picks this year is director Shari Rogers’ “Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance,” which revisits the historic and longstanding bond between African-American and Jewish leaders.
Also among Mörsel Nathan’s picks are “Ma’abarot: The Israeli Transit Camps,” director Dina Zvi Riklis’s look at Israel’s controversial resettlement program for 300,000 Jews from primarily Arab lands between 1948 and 1952; and, on the lighter side, she’s curious about Amy Geller and Gerald Peary’s “The Rabbi Goes West,” a Lubavitch rabbi’s fish-out-of-water tale detailing his move from Brooklyn to Bozeman, Mont.
Kempner keeps up with her filmmaker colleagues and friends by often screening two films a day, amounting to hundreds of movies each year. On her JxJ program list, she is looking forward to watching “Asia,” Ruthy Pribar’s drama about a free-spirited mother and her increasingly independent teenage daughter, played by actor Shira Haas, admired for her work in “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox.”
While both Kempner and Mörsel Nathan will miss the in-person film-going experience this year, Kempner recommends taking the virtual JxJ experience seriously, even at home.
“I’m a filmmaker professionally, so I have a big screen in my living room,” she says. “But even at home, you shouldn’t be multitasking or watching on your laptop.”
2020 JxJ Virtual Festival, Dec. 3-10, presented by the Edlavitch DCJewish Community Center, in partnership with Bender Jewish Community Center Greater Washington and Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. For festival information and tickets, visit jxjdc.org.
More than just movies
Beyond film, JxJ is showcasing musical genres from classical to funk, jazz to rock, klezmer to world in professionally pre-recorded concerts. Local artists in the mix include jazz and klezmer clarinetist Seth Kibel, joined by his 15-year-old son, pianist Will Kibel. Baltimore’s Sonia Rutstein of SONiA disappear fear is a singer composer who frequently addresses humanitarian causes in her multi-genre, multi-lingual songs; she has also recorded a special concert for JxJ. And Moscow-born, Gaithersburg-based Vladimir Fridman recorded a program that draws on his background as a classically trained guitarist, while also dipping into his klezmer and jazz repertoires.