Every one of the 30-plus films that will be shown as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival is important. The films that also include post-screening discussions are especially important.

“Those discussions give us an opportunity to make a community out of an audience,” said Barbara Merson, the festival’s executive director. “When people talk about a film, they become more of a community.”

The festival, which begins Saturday and continues through March 18, will expand its community this year. New locations for this year’s festival include Bangor and Rockland, in addition to Portland, Brunswick, Lewiston and Waterville. Many of the films include planned conversations afterward, to encourage deeper discussions of themes raised in the movies.

The shifting nature of Maine’s population, because of immigration trends, as well as a rise in hate crimes and incidents of anti-Semitism, create an urgency to screen films that encourage community, said Peggy Golden, a longtime member of the festival’s board. “We’ve always done a lot of outreach,” she said. “Now we’re trying to do a little bit more. It’s so important to create a dialogue.”

This is the festival’s 21st year. Collectively, the films in the festival depict the global Jewish experience and are chosen to promote cultural diversity and understanding.

That effort seems to be working. Based on audience surveys, more than half of the people who attend the festival do not identify as Jewish, Merson said. Last year, 30 percent of the people who purchased tickets said they were attending the festival for the first time.

Still from “An Act of Defiance.”

The festival’s growth and its appeal among non-Jewish people encourage Merson to screen topical films with universal themes as well as others that appeal to narrower audiences. There are movies about social activists, about gay Palestinian men and a political thriller about the trial of Nelson Mandela and his Jewish co-defendants.

Among this year’s highlights:

* Opening Night Gala, 5 p.m. Saturday, Nickelodeon and Portland House of Music, Portland. The festival begins with the German dramedy “Bye Bye Germany,” a Holocaust-survivor film about the 4,000 Jews who survived the concentration camps and stayed in Germany. The movie also will be screened at 11 a.m. Saturday at Evening Star in Brunswick and at 7 p.m. March 17 at Bangor Mall Cinemas.

* “The Making of West Side Story,” 11:30 a.m. March 16; “West Side Story,” 2 p.m. March 17, Portland Museum of Art. These movies – the original and a documentary about its creation – give audiences the chance to revisit the classic on the 100th anniversary of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth. The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus will perform, and Emily Isaacson – artistic director of the Portland Bach Experience, Oratorio Chorale and the Maine Chamber Ensemble – will talk about Bernstein and his music.

* “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” 6 p.m. March 14, Nickelodeon. This is the story of the progressive activist, whose work spans 50 years, from civil rights to banking reform. Booth was supposed to come to Portland to talk about her work, but she had to cancel. Instead, after the movie, Marie Follayttar Smith, co-founder and co-director of Mainers for Responsible Leadership, will talk about the progressive movement in Maine.

* “Supergirl,” 1:30 p.m. March 18, Jewish Community Alliance, Portland. This film focuses on the effects of striving for athletic excellence, told through the story of a young female weightlifter and her family. Afterward, Rabbi Carolyn Braun, who is also a weightlifter, and Su Langdon, a sports psychologist who lectures at Bates College, will discuss the issue.

“Supergirl” focuses on the effects of striving for athletic excellence through the story of a young female weightlifter.

* “Oriented,” 6 p.m. March 12, Nickelodeon, Portland; 7 p.m. March 13, Railroad Square Cinema, Waterville. This LGBTQ-focused documentary follows the lives of three gay Palestinian men who confront their national and sexual identities in Tel Aviv.

* “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 10, Railroad Square Cinema, Waterville; 4 p.m. March 11, Eveningstar, Brunswick; 6 p.m. March 13, Nickelodeon, Portland; noon March 18, Bangor Mall Cinemas. This movie tells the story Hedy Lamarr, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women and a Holocaust refugee.

* “An Act of Defiance,” 7 p.m. March 11, Nickelodeon, Portland; 7 p.m. March 17, Strand Theatre, Rockland. This movie documents the trial of Nelson Mandela and 10 other defendants, some of whom were Jewish. It’s a story about balancing personal and public lives in challenging moral times.

* “Big Sonia,” 4 p.m. March 11, Nickelodeon. This is a comedic portrait of Holocaust survivor and inspirational speaker Sonia Warshawski, who embodies the idea of love over bigotry. Filmmaker Leah Warshawski will be in Portland to talk about her grandmother.

* Closing night with “Monkey Business,” 1:45 p.m. March 18, Bangor Mall Cinemas; 2:30 p.m. March 18, Strand Theatre, Rockland; 4:30 p.m. March 18, Portland Museum of Art. The festival closes with a movie about the lives of Hans and Margaret Rey, authors of the “Curious George” children’s books. They were German Jews who fled Paris in 1940 on bicycles, carrying the “Curious George” manuscript with them. They eventually settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The drama and the appeal of the festival, Merson said, is rooted in its ability to highlight people who have changed the world, like the Reys. “People think of ‘Curious George’ as American, but those books were written by refugees. When you know that, it adds a dimension of global awareness to the books,” Merson said. “That’s what we are trying to do with all of our movies – create awareness and understanding.”


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