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2016 DAYTON JEWISH FILM FEST

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

As both a film critic and, more fundamentally, as a passionate lover of film, I stand behind the belief that movies serve the purpose of gathering and sustaining a sometimes-disparate community of viewers. We enter that darkened space as individuals, locked inside our perspectives, but those flickering frames have a way of uniting us, weaving surprisingly strong threads of connectivity.

Festivals reinforce that sense of connection, offering themes that bind us ever tighter. When attending such events I tend to go in prepared, thoroughly researching the selections and laying out a clear journey that I know will help me to see and appreciate those around me as kindred spirits—fellow seekers of knowledge. It is easy to celebrate the larger, more familiar narratives, the obvious big-pictures that dominate the international festival circuits and garner awards season attention. Those are the films that allow us to pat ourselves on the back and embrace the rosy platitudes of brotherhood. But it is also imperative that festivals spotlight a degree of intimacy that forces audiences to look inward.

For the 2016 Dayton Jewish Film Festival, which runs April 5 through April 19, rather than offering a standard analytical overview, I reached out to Martin Gottlieb, this year’s festival chair, to engage in a critical dialogue. The email exchange set the stage for a freewheeling consideration of how festivals dedicated to specific minority groups assume the curious burden of defining identity. Film, on a certain level, speaks to how we see ourselves, how we reconcile the face that stares back at us from the mirror, from our ancestral lines, and from our roots in a historic context. It is also about being seen, insuring that others have some conception of who we are and where we have come from.

Was there a theme or mission driving your selection committee’s approach to this year’s festival?

Martin Gottlieb: A lot of people are involved in the festival process, and they don’t all have the same goals precisely, I suppose. But I don’t think I’m too far astray in saying that the main idea was, as always, to simply serve the Jewish community and the broader community by finding the best movies that are about Jewish subjects and that otherwise might not show up in Dayton theaters. The premise is that bringing the Jewish community together to experience the best movies can foster a sense of community in a time when Jews also have plenty of things separating them. And inviting the broader community can’t hurt.

How does the festival fit into the conversation within (and beyond) the Jewish community in Dayton (and the larger region)?

MG: Maybe our biggest impact is at the individual level—in how particular movies hit particular people. If we find good movies shedding light on, say, Arab-Israeli issues, or religious differences among Jews, or the history of Jews in this country, or on tensions between Jews and others outside Israel, or on the Holocaust and its impact, we try to show them. What we know is basically three things:

1. Israel has a remarkably vibrant and sophisticated movie industry that likes to take on dicey, difficult subjects and that delivers them in a dramatic, entertaining way.

2. A lot of other countries also do (very good) movies on Jewish subjects surprisingly often.

3. Few of these movies will make it to Dayton unless somebody reaches out for them. That’s where we come in.

As for the community beyond Jews, again, I don’t know. All we can do is give Dayton the best film festival possible. (And, by the way, every indication I have is that few, if any communities so small have such a vibrant festival.) As a festivalgoer, if I thought a festival was trying to lead my thinking in a certain direction or trying to shield me from certain points of view, I would be offended and would lose interest in it.

Looking at the lineup, is there a thread—an overarching political or cultural aspect that speaks to current events or issues? Is there more that the festival can or should do?

MG: Beyond [the Jewish angle], we’re going for diversity—in country of origin, in subject matter, in style and level of seriousness and in documentaries versus feature films. Sometimes, achieving diversity is a challenge. This year—though not every year—I think we could have made the festival’s theme the Holocaust and its aftermath. Filmmakers never seem to tire of the subject. Some moviegoers do, though. So we whittled the field down to three movies this year that might be said to have a Holocaust theme. But none of the three are set in the death camps, and only one is set during the war. It’s called “Secrets of War,” and it’s set in occupied Holland. It’s actually a family film. Another, “The Last Mensch,” is about an old Jewish man from Hungary, a survivor who has lived out his life in Germany in a determinedly secular way, but wants to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Trouble is, he has to prove he’s Jewish, and everybody who knows that is dead. The third, “Once in a Lifetime,” is based on a true story about a teacher who found herself teaching about the Holocaust in a tough, low-income, high-diversity place with a lot of Muslim students.

There is no direct acknowledgement of the ‘international’ angle, such as Cincinnati’s recent Jewish festival. Is/was that intentional?

MG: Dayton’s is definitely an international festival. This year we have films from Israel, Britain, France, Germany, Holland and the U.S. In the past we’ve had Italy, Spain, the Balkans and various South American countries. We once ran an Israeli-Mexican production. In fact, quite a few of the movies we screen involve international partnerships. Personally, I’m always most intrigued when a “Jewish” movie comes from someplace other than Israel, even though Israel makes some terrific movies. A Jewish movie from Israel isn’t exactly news, is it? As for the title of the festival, sometimes too many words just complicate things.

How Dayton-specific is the focus?

MG: We are honored and excited to have a Bognar-Reichert film this year: “Making Morning Star,” a short documentary about the making of an opera by an accomplished New York writer working with the Cincinnati Opera and University of Cincinnati. The Opera is about the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, where lots of immigrant Jews worked.

Beyond that selection, I suppose the main local aspect is that the committee that screens the movies is local. I mean, one way to put this festival together would be to look at what other festivals are doing and at what critics are saying, and at who’s getting the awards. We do pay attention to that sort of thing in deciding what movies to bring before the committee. Ultimately, though, our sense is that the best way we have of guessing what our audience would like is to see what our committee likes. I wouldn’t want to argue that it’s foolproof, but it’s pretty good.

What was your reaction to this year’s Best Foreign Language winner, “Son of Saul”?

MG: I first heard about it near the end of our selection process. And we heard great things. But it really turned out not to be right for us. When you’re talking about an Academy Award winner, the community doesn’t need us to bring it to town. Our role is to confront the fact that there are scores of other “Jewish” movies every year—including plenty of award winners—and to provide the service of whittling them down to 10 or so that we have found that a lot of people like a lot.

JewishDayton.org, the joint online home for the Jewish Federation, the JCC, Jewish Family Services, and the Jewish Foundation, on its front page has a banner announcing “Dayton is (____________) Jewish.” The blank space fills with rotating descriptors like “especially,” “wonderfully” and “awesomely.” The intention behind this festival, this event dedicated to gathering and fostering community, can and should also be defined by these terms. In addition, the 2016 Dayton Jewish Film Festival reminds us that the Jewish experience, here in Dayton, speaks to the universality of the human experience.

The 2016 Dayton Jewish Film Festival takes place April 5-19. Location varies depending on film. For more information, including complete schedule, more information about each film and access to tickets please, visit jewishdayton.org.