S.F. event paves way Film fests just the ticket for drawing Jews worldwide

One recent Sunday, 1,200 people at the vintage Coolidge Corner Cinema in Brookline, Mass., nibbled Jewish-flavored barbecued wings.

Film screenings sandwiched around the chicken, coleslaw and cornbread included "Shalom, Y'all" and a flick about Kinky Friedman, the outrageous founder of the Texas Jewboys band.

Those two documentaries about Jews and the South were among dozens of offerings at the 13th annual Boston Jewish Film Festival.

Though not exactly glatt kosher, the films — and meat — were "a fun way to do something more" at the November festival, says Sara Rubin, the executive director.

Perhaps much more, when it comes to filling Jews' appetite for greater identity, according to a new report by the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York.

The study, "Can Watching a Movie Lead to Greater Jewish Affiliation?" insists that the burgeoning Jewish film festival scene holds not only big box-office potential but the possibility of moving unaffiliated Jews "along the continuum of Jewish involvement."

The institute examined 46 festivals. One-quarter of them, including the one in San Francisco, are independently run, while the others have some kind of sponsorship from Jewish institutions or organizations, such as community centers or federations. Local Jewish community-sponsored festivals take place in Contra Costa and San Jose; Sonoma County has a community-sponsored film series.

"Film festivals serve as an entryway into the Jewish community," institute spokesman Paul Golin says.

For no Jewish obligation or commitment stricter than the price of admission, any Jew can explore new Jewish worlds in the anonymity of a darkened movie theater.

"For the large percentage of Jews in the Bay Area who aren't affiliated, this is a place for them to connect," says Janis Plotkin, the outgoing executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, founded in 1980 and the oldest such festival. "We program outside the box of what people assume is Jewish identity. We program for diversity."

Hannah Greenstein, the Jewish Outreach Institute's program officer and co-author of the film festival report, says festivals should view their audiences the way advertisers would target buyers.

"Jewish film festivals must have an outreach goal; they must seek out marketing opportunities to the unaffiliated or the disengaged," she says.

That has long been the goal of the S.F. festival, which has spawned more than 60 similar events annually in the United States, from Fairbanks to Philadelphia. Another half dozen are held in Canada, and about two dozen globally, from London to Hong Kong.

"We spend a lot of time marketing the festival to the unaffiliated," says Plotkin. A large number of the names on the mailing list are "non-institutional Jews. We're not marketing for the center. We're marketing for the fringe."

Don Adams, Plotkin's successor as executive director, says the Bay Area, which draws "people from all over the country and all over the world…because of the cultural life here," was an ideal launching pad for such a film festival. "So because the original Jewish film festival was here in the Bay Area, it demonstrated the explosive power of holding such an event. And particularly since its creator Deborah Kaufman took the festival on the road, it inspired others to do the same thing locally — to start Jewish film festivals in their own cities."

In one sure sign the festivals have arrived, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture sponsors an annual Jewish Film Festival conference. The first was held in San Francisco in 2000, in conjunction with the local festival's 20th anniversary, and festival founder Kaufman was the keynote speaker. Plotkin will be keynote speaker at the third conference, set for San Diego this February.

The foundation also receives up to 70 applicants each year for the $150,000 it awards annually for Jewish documentary filmmaking.

Jewish "film festivals are one signal of a Jewish renaissance" culturally, says Richard Siegel, the foundation's executive director. "They're multiplying, so clearly they're hitting a responsive chord."

The box office is heating up too, opening the doors to wider Jewish involvement, the report says.

San Francisco is the biggest event, attracting 34,700 people to nearly 50 films in 2002. Toronto is next with some 15,000 people seeing more thn 60 films, while Boston drew a record 13,000 peope last year, up 18 percent from 2001.

Among the larger festivals, Boston has grown from 10 films at its inception to this year's edition, which featured 43 films from 14 countries and a $500,000 budget.

Last year's barbecue, at a hip art house, echoed the kind of nontraditional twist that the Jewish Outreach Institute applauds as a creative way to promote Jewish interest.

But Gail Quets, the institute's director of research and co-author of the study, says anyone expecting people to walk out of such events with a new Jewish identity is kidding himself.

"Outreach is a sequence of activities. People don't see a Jewish film and run out and join a synagogue," she says.

The institute's report urges festivals to program "next steps" to greater Jewish activity. Ideas include information tables, panels of experts around film topics or even crossover events to other communities featured in some of the films.

Synagogue affiliation or ties to organized Jewry might come later. But Siegel says traditional notions of Jewish affiliation — such as synagogue membership or federation donations — must be expanded as well.

Jewish film-going is "not affiliation; it's participation in an active and meaningful way," he says. "Why should a synagogue dues payer who attends three times a year be considered more engaged than an active participant who debates films at a festival?"

What's more, the film-going experience — a collective act that is experienced individually — is "essentially what the prayer experience is," he says.

If Jewish film festivals are becoming the spiritual realm of the barely initiated, then film topics run a gamut almost as wide as the great Jewish texts. From gay Chassidic Jews ("Trembling Before G-d") to the toxic effects of vinyl siding on Jewish suburbia ("Blue Vinyl") to Tel Aviv twentysomethings ("Giraffes"), Jewish filmmaking is blossoming, in part to meet the demands of the festival scene.

In San Francisco, festival officials screen 240 films a year, selecting about 50 for the annual event, says Plotkin.

Discussing the festival's success, Plotkin points to the quality of films and a willingness to take risks.

"We identified a body of work," she says, noting that the growth of the Jewish film movement has paralleled that of the independent film movement. "Jews are the People of the Book, but in the last 20 years media [has become] the language."

But she emphasizes that most of the Jewish film festivals have been operating for less than five years, and that while "Boston has a strong curatorial eye…I don't think anyone has taken the risks that we have." Among those risks: mounting a live video opera, "Freefall" by Peter Forgacs.

Whether such festivals can raise Jewish consciousness remains an "amorphous" equation, says Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and an associate professor of Jewish film. With more than 200 titles, the center is the world's largest distributor of Jewish film and video, representing 108 filmmakers.

Pucker, who doubts that 40 good Jewish films are produced each year, sees a downside to the Jewish film explosion.

Jewish film festivals often show films "that didn't make it commercially: Either they're really lousy films or they're inaccurate, historically," she says. "But the imprimatur of a film festival gives it legitimacy."

Quality aside, whether film festivals can raise Jewish consciousness depends on where they're held, Pucker Rivo contends.

The most effective use of Jewish films as a hook for Jewish involvement is to show them in venues "that have an ongoing mission which is not just entertainment but lifecycle, whether a synagogue, or a Jewish community center, or a university," she says.

But some disagree. Plotkin says independently run festivals like San Francisco's are accountable only to their board of directors rather than some outside agency sponsor and so have "complete curatorial" freedom.

Not all Jewish film festivals even list "outreach" as a goal. But San Francisco's, among others, seeks not only to celebrate Jewish "diversity" but to "reach out to the young and unaffiliated," Plotkin says. In fact, she was "thrilled" by the outreach report, which "validated" her festival experience.

An audience survey at this year's San Francisco festival found that nearly 60 percent of the 34,000 patrons said they were returning for the third straight years. Five percent said they had been returning each year for a decade. Some 30 percent were newcomers, according to a 2001 survey.

Those results reflected what other festival officials sensed: They're attracting old and new audiences who are prime outreach targets. In San Francisco, for instance, the 2001 survey found 80 percent of filmgoers were Jews, while 64 percent were married to non-Jews.

"Secular Jews," Plotkin says, "come to the Jewish film festival as it if were their High Holiday.''