You’ve seen the ads.

An African-American man in a priest’s collar. A shirtless, tattooed dude. And the caption “You don’t need to be Jewish. You just need to love good movies.”

Is the venerable Maine Jewish Film Festival (whose 15th season begins on Saturday) getting a sense of humor?

“We wanted to lighten up a little,” says MJFF executive and artistic director Kari Wagner-Peck of this year’s irreverent ad campaign (which includes a flier touting the fest’s movie roster as “The Chosen Films.”) “Sometimes when people think of us, they imagine it’s going to be like PBS — all educational and religious. The idea that you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the festival has always been our message; this is just a reflection of who we’ve always been.”

For past MJFF attendees, that should come as no surprise. Far from being a dry, homogenous “issue” event, the fest has always sought to present a wide variety of films from around the world that highlight the Jewish experience in varied, often surprising, cinematic ways. For Maine film fans, whatever their faith (or lack thereof), the MJFF, like the growing number of other film festivals in our state, is a gift.

This year’s lineup includes the likes of “Little Rose,” an acclaimed heartbreaker about forbidden love in increasingly-anti-Semitic 1968 Czechoslovakia; “Stealing Klimt,” a documentary about a Holocaust survivor’s quest to recover priceless art stolen by the Nazis; cross-cultural romances “The Name of Love” and “The Matchmaker”; the documentary “Crime After Crime,” about two lawyers’ attempts to free a woman who killed her abusive husband; and the Jewish “blaxploitation” spoof “The Hebrew Hammer” starring “Dazed and Confused”‘s Adam Goldberg as an orthodox lover-man action hero out to save Hanukkah from Santa’s evil son.

Wait, what was that last one?

“People get surprised that there’s humor and sex in our films,” laughs Wagner-Peck, citing, in addition, MJFF’s inclusion of the silly (and raunchy) comedy “This Is Sodom.” “We’re bringing sexy back.”

Wagner-Peck reports that MJFF’s attendance grew some 6 percent last year. Almost as encouraging is that an even larger percentage consisted of first-time attendees, a trend she attributes to the festival’s mission to present as diverse a movie experience as possible and appeal to the cinematic romantic in everyone.

“Maine has the highest rate of inter-faith marriages in North America,” said Wagner-Peck. “Less than 1 percent of our population is Jewish, so there are people who come who are, while their families might not be. Some people in a family are really coming for a new experience, but most people are coming to try to find some kind of magic.

“I want something that’s going to change me. Not at home on TV or my iPad — somewhere where the magic happens. Cultural identity does not trump the experience of going to the theater.”

For a full schedule of films and events, check out mjff.org.

Dennis Perkins is a Portland-based freelance writer.

 

‘Little Rose’ trailer

 

‘Stealing Klimt’ trailer

‘Name of Love’ trailer


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