IMAGE ABOVE: The Zigzag Kid screens on March 23 at ERJCC.
The Houston Jewish Film Festival Turns Ten
The Annual Houston Jewish Film Festival, March 8-23, celebrates its 10th anniversary with 28 of the best Jewish or Israeli films from around the world. The Festival, presented by the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston (ERJCC) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), highlights current documentary and feature films with meaningful Jewish or Israeli content. In addition to the films, the Festival presents a lecture by author and professor of cinema, Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary Eric A. Goldman on The American Jewish Story through Cinema on March 9 at the MFAH. The Festival’s film coordinator, Amy Rahmani, visited with A + C editor in chief Nancy Wozny on this year’s line-up.
Arts + Culture TX: The Festival is celebrating its 10th year, a big one in arts org years. It means that the Festival has some staying power. Can you give us a flash history of how it got started?
Amy Rahmani: Ten years ago, two lay leaders, Doreen Joffe and Sharon Kagan, saw an opportunity to improve the Houston Jewish community’s cultural offerings. Doreen and Sharon started recruiting a committee to screen films, develop programs, and they set in motion a Jewish Film Festival in Houston, to premier Spring 2005. They had ongoing discussions with Marian Luntz, Film Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to see how MFAH and the Jewish Community Center could come together, and they also had the challenging task of seriously defining the festival. Ten years later, we are so excited to be celebrating our 10th year and to honor our wonderful founders!
A + C: I was astonished looking at the schedule. This is a full blown film fest. It’s been my experience that the opening film of a festival sets the tone and often determines if anyone comes back. How does Bethlehem make an ideal opening film?
AR: Bethlehem is an extremely powerful, well done film. The story, while it centers on a secret service agent and his informant, is really about the father-son like relationship that develops between the two characters. We struggled a little this year finding something that would set the right tone for Opening Night: that wasn’t too heavy, but also wasn’t just a fluff film. In the end, we are really happy with our choice and we hope that the audience, like us, will be blown away by the film and will be encouraged to return again, and again throughout the Festival.
A + C: Let’s get to the ending film, that’s the feeling we go home on. The Zigzag Kid is described as a “fun, coming of age tale and detective story based on David Grossman’s beloved novel.” What caught your eye in this film?
AR: Our film committee, a group of about 20 volunteers who help to curate the Festival, all really loved this film! We wanted to end the Festival in a fun, up-beat way, and The Zigzag Kid does just that. It’s a fast-paced film that all ages can enjoy, and has a stellar cast, including Isabella Rossellini. We also knew that the connection to David Grossman would be a big draw for people.
A + C: I know it’s hard to speak for a whole committee, but obviously this Festival is carefully curated. What is the group’s guiding principle in selecting a film?
AR: Every film that we consider is pre-screened by at least two members of our dedicated film committee. If the film receives two positive votes, then we show a portion of it to our film committee. Throughout the fall our film committee previews about 40 films and rates each film based on quality, audience appeal, subject matter of the story, etc. Then my chairwoman, Diane Lee, and I look at the scores and curate the Festival, trying to include as many of the top ranking films, while also balancing the line-up in terms of subject matter.
A +C: Can you tell us about a surprising film that we might overlook?
AR: To me, that would be Glickman. The film tells the story of the famous sportscaster, Marty Glickman, including how he was banned from the 1936 Berlin Olympics to mollify Hitler. The film goes on to tell his story of becoming a famous sportscaster for the Yankees, Knicks, Rangers, and Mets. Even for non-sports fans, it is a wonderful film and very touching.
A + C: That sounds like a film Houstonians will enjoy. I’m curious about the The Real Inglorious Bastards. What can you tell us about this film and do we need to have seen the Tarantino film to get it?
AR: It’s the true, virtually unknown, heroic and thrilling story that’s a must-see! Two young Jewish guys who join the OSS are matched up with a German prisoner of war officer who deserted because he was opposed to the Nazis. Together they recount their incredible adventure. The documentary tells the story itself so no; you definitely don’t have to see the Tarantino film to get it.
A + C: The Festival takes places at three venues, which is both exciting and somewhat complicated in that Festival goers need to get their venues down. How do you match the film to the venue, and what are some of the advantages of gathering other partners like the MFAH and Holocaust Museum Houston.
AR: Marian Luntz, the Film Curator at the MFAH and Tamara Savage, the Managing Director at the Holocaust Museum, both sit on our Film Committee and decide which films they would like shown at their venues. Generally, the films at MFAH are more artsy type films, and then Tamara selects a strong Holocaust film that she thinks will appeal to her members and patrons. When building the schedule, we try to keep the locations consistent, so the 2nd weekend of the Festival is all in the Museum District, along with a few other days at the beginning of the Festival. We try to limit people having to drive back in forth between the venues on a given day. We really enjoy our partnership with both the MFAH and HMH, and the biggest advantage is being able to expose new and different audiences to Jewish and Israeli cinema. We love when someone experiences one of our films on their visit to the MFAH, learns about the Houston Jewish Film Festival and then returns later in the Festival.
A + C: When you look at the full body of work shown at the Festival, what are some threads or themes that emerge that truly make this a Jewish Film Festival?
AR: The films throughout the Festival tell the stories of Jewish and Israeli significance with poignancy and creativity. Some films tell the story of the Jewish people’s history, such as The Jester, Rewriting History, Suskind, and The Real Inglorious Bastards. Other films tell the stories of Jewish people and their amazing journeys such as Marty Glickman and Marvin Hamlisch. Then others tell the story through modern day life in Israel, such as Bethlehem, The Attack, and Dancing in Jaffa.