The Maine Jewish Film Festival will be judged by the quality of the movies it screens and the number of people who attend. So far, it’s scoring well on both counts – and it’s still almost a week away from opening.

John Cariani

The movie lineup looks promising and includes many inspiring, challenging and timely titles among the 30-plus scheduled to be shown in six Maine communities beginning Saturday. Advance ticket sales suggest attendance could top last year’s total of 3,000. That number represented the most tickets sold in the history of the festival, which is now in its 22nd year.

Another measuring stick of a successful festival is the quality of its guests who can speak about the movies and the issues they raise and passions they stir. Executive director Barbara Merson has pulled together an impressive roster of nearly two dozen experts, including Broadway star and Mainer-at-heart John Cariani, who will return to Portland on March 10 to talk about the movie version of “The Band’s Visit” that inspired the Broadway hit that Cariani starred in.

Lisa Hurwitz, director of the in-progress documentary “The Automat,” will talk about the cultural influence of the vending-machine, cafeteria-style restaurants that were popular in New York and other industrial U.S. cities in the first half of the 20th century. She will show a not-quite-final cut of her movie, which includes interviews with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould and others, also on March 10.

From March 14-17, Lana Alman, a director of the international refugee protection and resettlement agency HIAS, will follow the documentary “Eldorado” to Maine’s three largest cities to discuss the work of her agency, which was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and now helps refugees from around the world fleeing persecution.

A documentary from the Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof, “Eldorado” is an example of the festival’s broadening content. Not all the films are by or about Jewish people. This one is a film about modern-day European refugees and includes extraordinary footage that places the viewer in the ocean with the refugees and follows them as they are rescued as they seek asylum. The film’s content is minimally Jewish, but Alman’s discussion afterward will focus on the work of HIAS in the context of history and will draw parallels about the experiences of refugees over time.


The documentary “Eldorado” by Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof follows asylum seekers in Europe.

A screening committee of 14 selects the films for the festival. Members include film scholars and movie buffs, some who are Jewish and some who are not. They are diverse in age, gender and sexual orientation. They watch about 100 movies and keep a running commentary in a huge Google document. As they narrow their selections in the fall, they get together once a month to hash out their ideas. “Our mission is to present our films to a diverse audience, and to get diversity, you have to have diversity on screening committee,” she said.

“Citizen Jane” is about urban planning crusader Jane Jacobs, in keeping with a festival theme of recognizing heroic, often unheralded women.

If a single theme emerges among this year’s movies, it is one about heroic and often unheralded women. “Citizen Jane” tells the story of urban planning crusader Jane Jacobs, author of the book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” “Estella” is the story of Irish-Jew painter Estella Solomons, who was active in politics during the Irish revolution and married the poet Seamus O’Sullivan despite her parents’ objections because of his lack of Jewish faith. “Seeing Allred” is a documentary about Gloria Allred, the women’s rights attorney who took on Donald Trump, and “93Queen” documents the all-women EMT team that pushes the boundaries of gender norms within Hasidic Judaism in Brooklyn.

“These are important movies for our times,” Merson said. “What resonates with our screening committee is what people are thinking about and talking about in the world. In the past couple of years, we’ve shown a lot of movies about immigrants and refugees, and this year we are showing a lot of movies about women. Those are the issues that are important to Maine and important to the country.”


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