A scene from “Barren,” which will be screened at this year’s Maine Jewish Film Festival. Photo by Uri Ackerman

For its groundbreaking 25th season (Saturday through Nov. 11), the Maine Jewish Film Festival is going all out. MJFF’s always-impressive roster of features and shorts centering on the worldwide Jewish experience is one of the highlights of the Maine moviegoing season, with the festival bringing audiences the sort of international film fare that Maine often misses out on. Plus this year, the festival has expanded its reach throughout the state, with the main, Portland-based festival being augmented with satellite screenings in Brunswick, Bangor, Lewiston, Bethel and Waterville.

It’s a bounty of cinematic goodness for Mainers looking for a stellar, lovingly curated selection of comedy, drama and documentary, with the festival’s signature focus on all aspects of Jewish identity providing its own unique insights. For first-year MJFF Executive Director Carolyn Swartz, bringing such an ambitious and popular event to Maine’s biggest screens is a challenge, but one she’s excited to take on.

“(MJFF) is noteworthy because we’re one of the only independent Jewish film festivals around the country, which means we’re not under the auspices of a (Jewish community center) or a synagogue,” said Swartz, herself a filmmaker, writer and musician. What that means for attendees is that the festival routinely offers up a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and wonderfully diverse selection of movies, one that Swartz proudly states, “has always attracted a diverse audience. In surveys, we’ve found that fully half of our audience each year is Jewish, the other half not.”

Of course, this year’s Maine Jewish Film Festival is taking place just as the world is watching the developments in Israel, where attacks by the terrorist group Hamas and the retaliation by the Israeli military have seen that region embroiled in the bloodiest conflict in decades. “These are strange times,” Swartz said. “What’s happening has a deep impact on all of us, and we’re all affected in different ways. It’s truly hard to process the really horrific information coming out of Israel and Gaza, but that’s why it’s all the more important to be together, experience together, to talk as a community.”

Indeed, a scan of this year’s MJFF roster reveals the vast and varied scope of the filmmakers’ vision about Jewishness in today’s world. It’s a broad and eclectic portrait of how identity shapes us, and how, despite the divisions sought and horribly enforced by some, our collective humanity is expressed. “We want to explore universal themes through a lens of the Jewish experience,” Swartz said of the festival’s approach to its annual offerings.

Selecting one film to illustrate her point, Swartz recommends director Mordechai Vardi’s 2022 Israeli drama “Barren” about a young woman (played by Mili Eshet) living in a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community whose desperate desire to conceive a child leaves her at the mercy of an unscrupulous would-be expert.


“The couple has been married for four years and they can’t conceive,” Swartz said. “A fertility doctor is out of the question, with the woman’s husband advising that only prayer can help them. When she’s raped by the alleged rabbi she seeks out for help, she freezes – it’s a community where she can’t complain.” Swartz noted that the film will be followed by a speaker who works with victims of sexual abuse in religious communities. “It’s a theme that resonates through many cultures – the most vulnerable are pressured to keep quiet, especially in insular communities.”

A scene from “Stay With Us,” which will be screened at the Maine Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Laura Gilli

Switching gears completely, Swartz is also high on the 2022 comedy “Rest un Peu (Stay With Us),” a semi-autobiographical film from standup comedian Gad Elmaleh about a Jewish man (Elmaleh) whose return from America to his native France delights his aging parents – until they discover that he’s actually come to complete his conversion to Catholicism.

“The reaction of his family turns the whole visit into a minefield,” Swartz said. Part of the MJFF programming committee’s goal, according to Swartz, is to include a wide variety of subjects, tones and points of view. “Narrative drama, documentaries, and, in the case of this movie, laugh-out-loud comedy – it’s all part of the whole picture.”

From “The Art of Silence,” a documentary about world-famous mime, Marcel Marceau, which will be screened at the Maine Jewish Film Festival. Courtesy of the Maine Jewish Film Festival

That big picture also includes everything from a documentary about the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau (“The Art of Silence”), to a drama about a young Ukrainian woman discovering the dangers of the mail-order bride trade (“Valeria Is Getting Married”), to the period romance “March ’68,” about a pair of young Polish lovers caught up in the student unrest and anti-Semitic purges sweeping their country. There’s a no-doubt wrenching documentary about the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre carried out by a white supremacist with an automatic weapon (“Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life”), and a fascinating look at a lost hero in “Searching for Gerda Taro,” about the real-life female war photographer Gerta Pohorylle, killed while documenting the anti-fascist Spanish Civil War.

All in all, nearly 20 films make up this year’s Maine Jewish Film Festival, an insightful and entertaining lineup with something for everyone – and plenty of opportunities to learn. “It’s important that we’re expanding in a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise,” Swartz said of MJFF’s mission. “Sometimes, someone will ask why we don’t feature films that are overtly about anti-Semitism, and I don’t even know what that means. I don’t think you fight prejudice by showing films about it. I think you do that by creating greater understanding through human stories. We’re all human, have the same concerns, all want to be safe and happy. We’re all struggling with the same kind of issues.”

Instrumental in the Maine Jewish Film Festival’s influence is the power of movies. “Movies are like a prodding touch with a velvet glove,” Swartz said. “Like everybody, I watch the news and hear opinions and I want to throw things – and I’ve come very close. But at a movie, with everybody relaxed, in a dark room, all having the same experience at the same time – you can feel it. Even if you can’t see the tear on the face of the person next to you in the dark, you have that shared feeling of having experienced something powerful, and beautiful. A movie’s not to be argued with. It’s a story about people, about the lived experience of people around the world. It has a different kind of impact – it’s a little bit of magic.”

Maine could use some magic right now. Some togetherness. An event that celebrates our shared humanity.

The 25th annual Maine Jewish Film Festival takes place from Saturday through Nov. 11, with the grand kickoff event taking place at the Portland Museum of Art. Look for film descriptions, showtimes, tickets (including the ever-wise all-festival pass) and virtual offerings at mjff.org.

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

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