Now entering its 16th year, the Maine Jewish Film Festival (Saturday to March 16) remains dedicated to its mission of examining the Jewish experience through the medium of film.
Bringing in an impressively varied roster of feature films and documentaries, thoughtfully refining its message and continually seeking ways of expanding its reach and appeal, the MJFF is a vital exploration of the ways in which Jewish filmmakers examine life and faith in a complicated world.
Of course, for Maine film fans, it’s also just a chance to see some great movies.
“Foremost in my mind is the idea that we want films that are of a quality and sensibility that are really distinctive,” said MJFF executive and artistic director Louise Rosen. “For the most part, these are films that are not going to be seen in Maine except at the festival. We’re excited to help expand the growing arthouse film presence in serving to broaden the filmgoing experience for the people of Maine.”
In her first year at the MJFF helm, Rosen cites that dedication to expanding the festival’s reach — and its audience — as part of her mandate.
“The festival has always been as wide-ranging as the available films allow them to be,” Rosen said. “But we want to live up to the idea of being the Maine Jewish Film Festival.”
To that end, MJFF is expanding its festival activities with screenings at the Frontier in Brunswick, Colby College in Waterville, the Strand in Rockland and the Bangor Opera House. (Check mjff.org for details.) “We’re hoping we can build more of an ongoing presence and work to keep the flow of films and guest speakers going through the rest of the year, ” Rosen said.
Of course, we here in Portland get first crack at this year’s films with screenings at the Nickelodeon. And, as Rosen explained, there’s something on this year’s roster for everyone. Some highlights:
• “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea”: A 17-year-old Jerusalem girl’s open letter to the world after a bombing brings a response from a young Palestinian in this heart-wrenching drama Rosen describes as “a Romeo and Juliet for the Internet age.”
• “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Grey”: This eye-opening documentary reveals that American Jews were as divided by the Civil War as the rest of the country, with 7,000 Jewish Union soldiers fighting against some 3,000 Jewish Confederates.
• “400 Miles to Freedom”: Another illuminating documentary, this film follows the harrowing journey of a young Ethiopian Jew as he returns to his homeland after having fled with his family of observant African Jews to Israel in 1984. “Touching on the African diaspora,” Rosen explains, “is a way of connecting with the immigrant experience around the world and of connecting with different communities here in Maine.”
• “Mahler on the Couch”: This drama about the troubled marriage of famous composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma Schindler, incorporated Sigmund Freud and architect Walter Gropius, and is followed by a discussion of the film and Mahler’s music by MPBN’s Suzanne Nance.
• “This Must Be the Place”: Sean Penn goes goth as an aging rocker whose death-bed reconciliation with his estranged father sends him on an improbable mission of revenge against the man whom he learns humiliated his father in Auschwitz. Rosen thanks the Nickelodeon for helping MJFF land this big-name drama, and cites the film as an example of “an edgier film that could pull a different audience” to the festival.
• “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay”: The actor, magician, card sharp and all-around fascinating Jay gives a guided tour through his career in this documentary which, Rosen enthuses, is being shown in advance of its national release.
• “The Jewish Experience”: Maine gets in on the MJFF action with local filmmaker Rebecca Wohl-Pollack interviewing members of southern Maine’s Jewish community for this short film that Rosen calls “a kind of mosaic — a charming little film.”
So as ever, the MJFF has gifted Maine film fans with a weeklong wealth of movies with something for everyone. As Rosen put it: “No matter whether you’re Jewish or not, all these films stand on their own merits.”
Trailer for Jewish Maine Film Festival