The 23rd annual Maine Jewish Film Festival kicks off Saturday. As ever, this yearly cinematic celebration takes on the meaning and evolution of Jewishness, all by programming a weeklong roster of films that view different aspects of worldwide Jewish life, in all its complexity.

That’s traditionally great news for us here in Portland, since MJFF has become a highlight of the moviegoing year. A major attraction for movie lovers, whatever their religion or lack thereof, MJFF, with its ever-challenging and entertaining film lineup and the chance to interact with both fellow film fans and illustrious filmmakers, is a must-attend. Even when, as so many film festivals have discovered in the past two years, the definition of “attend” has had to evolve a bit. 

“This is our second all-virtual festival,” said Maine Jewish Film Festival Executive Director Barbara Merson, explaining, “We’d heard a lot from our audience about their concerns about going back to sit in theaters with large groups of people and were just thinking about the plans for this year’s festival when the Delta variant started sweeping Maine.” Like pretty much every film festival since the beginning of this pandemic (which is still not over, so get vaccinated, already), MJFF has had to adjust. And, like those other festival organizers, Merson has learned to find the silver linings where she can. 

“Last year’s festival went really well,” Merson said, “We had very high box office and attendance online. Plus, we found that filmmakers were even more eager to attend virtually through Zoom conversations with us and our audience. Portland’s great, but convincing a filmmaker to take a week out of their very busy lives to come to town is a big ask.”

Fair enough, especially since, as ever, this year’s MJFF includes films and filmmakers from as far afield as Israel and Palestine, Morocco, Argentina and Russia. “There was a steep learning curve last year, both for us and our audience, in planning and attending a virtual film festival,” said Merson. “Now, while we miss the in-person experience, we’ve learned that, all in all, there are a lot of positives in doing things virtually.”

For one thing, Merson says that the 17 films that make up this year’s festival represent an even more selective screening process than usual.

“We have a slightly higher number of films than last year’s festival, but still lower than when we’ve done it in person,” she said. “What that means is that our selection committee really had to pick and choose. When you do a live festival, you assume that not everyone will be able to attend every screening, so you tend to schedule different sorts of films for different audiences in the same time slots. This year, since everyone can watch every film from their own homes (and a virtual ticket can be used over multiple days), we could be really selective and just pick the best of over 100 submissions.”

I asked Merson to pick out a few of her favorites from this year’s already meticulously curated roster, a process she laughingly described as having to “choose which is my favorite child.” Still, she favored us with several picks of the movies she’s particularly excited for audiences to check out. 

“Persian Lessons,” from Ukrainian director Vadim Perelman, is among the highlights of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, which starts Saturday. Photo courtesy of One Two Films

Persian Lessons,” from Ukrainian director Vadim Perelman, is, according to an enthusiastic Merson, “an amazing film. It’s about World War II, but it’s not a typical WWII film. It really is about the relationship of language and human connection, all while being a very suspenseful drama – honestly, I don’t want to say too much.” (In deference to Merson’s advice to know as little as possible going in, I’ll only add that the “Persian Lessons” of the title form a pivotal and surprising central conceit, and leave it at that.)

In Your Eyes I See My Country” is a completely different film, a documentary about two musicians who travel from their Jerusalem home to their ancestral Morocco in order to reconnect with their cultural, and musical, heritage.

“The film (from director Kamal Hachkar) focuses on the music of Morocco as played and performed by two musicians whose parents came from there. I love music, and this movie has a lot to say about the process of immigration, about what you gain and what you lose through generations,” Merson said.

The interconnectedness of marginalized people all comes together in the stirring documentary “A Crime on the Bayou,” a uniquely and regrettably American tale of bigotry and injustice. The real-life tale of a young Black man’s 1966 arrest (for touching a white man on the arm) and the Jewish attorney who battled a white supremacist Louisiana Jim Crow legal system on his behalf, the film, said Merson, “is about the intersection of the Black story and the Jewish story in Louisiana. It’s very much about the history of what went on, and what’s going on.”

Merson says that Mainers in particular will find a lot to relate to in director Isaac Artenstein’s documentary, “Challah Rising in the Desert,” a stunningly shot and insightful examination of the small but vibrant Jewish community in New Mexico. “There’s a braided challah bread made with green chiles in the film,” said Merson, “and if that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does. There are many similarities in the Maine and New Mexico Jewish experience, in how communities come to a place and absorb, but also add to the culture. This is an extremely engaging film that I feel people in Maine will relate to.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course, with this year’s festival offering up a typically eclectic and intriguing roster. The drama “200 Meters” examines the hardships of a Palestinian couple forced to live on either side of Israel’s separation wall. “Hollywood and WWII” documents the efforts of immigrant Jewish filmmakers William Wyler, Billy Wilder and Anatole Litvak to bring their cameras to war. And the gripping documentary “Love It Was Not” tells the story of a Jewish woman’s tale of concentration camp survival thanks to the attentions of a German officer – and her decision to testify at the officer’s war crimes trial.

“Number one, we’re always looking for excellent movies,” Merson said of the annual selection process. “There’s always a balance of dramas and documentaries, and our selection committee always looks for a balance, since our audience is very diverse.” This year, says Merson, that process saw MJFF gravitating toward that diversity, in both subject matter and point of origin. “With people not so comfortable about traveling at this point, we sought to bring people to places where they are not actually going to go, with many different countries and languages all represented.”

For Merson, Maine Jewish Film Festival’s mission remains consistent, regardless of what any external considerations (like a global pandemic) say. “We want to enrich, educate and entertain. The Jewish community in Maine is small, and I hope people who are not as aware of it, and who don’t interact with it often, will learn something about us, and about the global Jewish experience. These are important and universal themes – family relationships, the experience of being an outsider – and it’s our mission to give people a common, immersive experience.” 

The 23rd Maine Jewish Film Festival runs through Nov. 14. For complete details about MJFF and this year’s films and guest speakers, and to purchase individual tickets or the ever-economical festival pass, go to mjff.org. 

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


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