The Maine Jewish Film Festival was rescheduled from March to a virtual event that starts Saturday, with movies like “The Tobacconist” showing through Nov. 22. Images courtesy of Maine Jewish Film Festival

The Maine Jewish Film Festival was scheduled – as it always is – to happen in March. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, as organizers wisely chose to call off the 22nd annual festival just two weeks before its planned start date, owing to the emergence of the still-rampaging pandemic. Most festivals, sports and virtually every other event that gives us joy have faced similar cancellations, postponements or almost unrecognizable re-shapings thanks to COVID-19, but the dawning of the pandemic’s true seriousness coinciding with the venerable Maine film event’s carefully organized start time is the sort of body-blow a lesser festival would crumble under.

But this is the Maine Jewish Film Festival we’re talking about, people. As Executive Director Barbara Merson explained in advance of this week’s rescheduled and creatively resilient Maine Jewish Film Festival, “We just picked ourselves up off the floor and realized, ‘Oh, we can show films online.’ ” Easier said than done, as movie programmers have found out in the past seven months, but that was a challenge Merson and her intrepid board took on with gusto. The result is the first-ever all-virtual Maine Jewish Film Festival, taking place right in your living room, starting Saturday and running through Nov. 22. 

As Merson explains, getting both the festival and its loyal attendees up to speed on this new, necessarily solitary moviegoing experience took some serious speed-learning. “We’ve been doing online programs for free since April,” says Merson of MJFF’s adaptation to this new, interminable normal. “We did that partly to say thank you to our loyal sponsors and viewers (none of whom, Merson says, asked for their money back after the unpleasantness) and to learn how to do online screenings.” Says Merson of the the cultural learning curve we’ve all gone through as we’ve had to navigate online watching and communication, “It’s quite striking to see from the beginning of this process to now, how much more sophisticated our audience has become about all this.”

The structure of this year’s festival is, indeed, different – each film is scheduled for a 55-hour viewing window during the two weeks, with a festival pass or individual ticket buying viewers 24 hours within that window to watch their chosen movie. Chosen to replicate – as close as possible – the event status of each screening, Merson touts the choice for “people to make a date with themselves.” As ever, prices are reasonable, especially if you buy the festival passes. But, also as ever, Maine Jewish Film Festival provides Maine movie fans yet another fantastic, eclectic, and ambitiously scheduled roster of the best of the best in films that touch on the Jewish experience around the world, often in surprising, but always entertaining, ways. 

“Abe” is the story of a Jewish/Palestinian boy who, with the help of his Brazilian chef mentor, seeks to untie both sides of his cultural heritage through food.

This season, Merson points to the festival’s traditional mix of subjects, formats (documentaries vs. features), and guest speakers, explaining that the slate of films on view take on cinematic Jewishness from thrillingly diverse points of view. There’s “#Female Pleasure,” a cheeky and empowering examination of how women in various restrictive cultures (including the Hassidic Jewish community) have broken out to express their sexuality. “Every Mother’s Son” takes on the stories of three women whose sons have been killed by the police, a never-more-relevant topic that, as Merson notes, will be followed by a virtual discussion with director Tami Gold and local justice reform advocates. Meanwhile, the heartwarming “Abe” is the story of a Jewish/Palestinian boy who, with the help of his Brazilian chef mentor, seeks to untie both sides of his cultural heritage through food. 

As Merson says, “Being a Jewish film festival, we’re always going to have a number of films dealing with Holocaust-related issues.” Yet, as she notes, this year’s films approach the towering subject in unexpected ways. “My Polish Honeymoon” follows two non-observant Jewish millennial French newlyweds whose decision to honeymoon in the land of their shared ancestors brings them face to face with some harsh truths they’d not fully realized. In “The Tobacconist,” the last film of the late, great Bruno Ganz (“Wings of Desire”), Ganz plays a pre-war Sigmund Freud, whose unlikely friendship with the young apprentice of the title is informed by looming clouds of World War II. As Merson says, “There are a lot of ways to make a movie about the same theme.”

Of course, every film festival needs a party, and even if the traditional in-person opening soiree isn’t happening, MJFF still has your cinematic celebration covered. Appearing in conjunction with the local-interest music documentary, “WBCN and the American Revolution,” Northeast rock legends The Boneheads (who feature prominently in this doc about the seminal Boston countercultural radio station) will be playing a live concert for online guests. “It was our opportunity to throw a little bit of a party,” says Merson, who urges everyone to get up and dance, “even if it’s just in their living rooms.” 

For Merson and MJFF, this has been a crazy year. But necessity being the mother of invention, as they say, she’s thrilled at the way the Maine Jewish Film Festival board, sponsors and audience have responded. Ticket sales are good, the process for viewing films is tried, tested and simple, and even when/if we’re actually able to share the incomparable experience of sitting together in a dark movie theater again, Merson says, the lessons learned from this potential debacle-turned-triumph will stick around as part of MJFF’s future. “Everything we ever learned how to do, we had to learn to do differently,” laughs Merson. “We literally had to rebuild our business model from the ground up,” she says, adding, “and while we certainly would want to go back to an in-person experience, we’ll see if we continue to incorporate virtual into the mix. You can’t replace the excitement – but we’ve found that each has its advantages.”

For now at least, you can experience the 22nd Annual Maine Jewish Film Festival from the safety and comfort of your own home. Check out the as-ever impressive full roster of films and get your tickets and passes today at the MJFF website, 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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