From its origins as a five-film weekend at the coast, the Portland Jewish Film Festival has grown into a two-week festival of 16 films that annually attracts thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish filmgoers.
The 21st annual PJFF is presented by the Northwest Film Center in partnership with the Institute of Judaic Studies June 16-30. This year’s festival includes films from seven countries designed to appeal to a wide range of interests. All screenings will be at NWFC’s Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park.
“We screened over 200 films, which we rated as to quality and efficacy for PJFF,” says IJS film festival chair Hal Nevis. “Looking at the list of films, I can say that what is most exciting about it is the wide scope of themes and the ‘unfamiliar territory’ they cover.” He is particularly enthused about: “The Ballad of Weeping Spring,” which he calls an amazing film that combines music, (classic instruments) with troubadours, a flavor of the wild west and drama; “Life in Stills,” a good documentary about a documentarian; “The World Is Funny,” an excellent example of Israeli humor; and “Let’s Dance,” a nice look at the history of Israeli dance.
Joan Sher, former IJS film chair who now assists Nevis in screening and recommending films to the NWFC, is likewise stoked by the films selected for this year’s festival. “I am very excited with this year’s lineup, as we have a varied selection of documentaries and narrative features,” says Sher. “We also will be showing shorts from the Ma’aleh film school in Jerusalem. I was so impressed when I saw the work of their students and the wide range of controversial subjects that they dealt with; especially interesting to me were the number of talented women filmmakers, many of whom were Orthodox women.”
Sher says the Orthodox film school shorts “deal with arranged marriage, women’s roles, service in Israeli Defense Forces, settlements, security check points … the same issues that many of us are concerned about in Israel, but from their perspective as Orthodox, even Hassidic, Jews.” An Orthodox woman also created the opening night film, “Fill the Void,” an empathic, positive view of a religious community.
NWFC Executive Director Bill Foster saw “Fill the Void” at the Toronto Film Festival last September. He calls it, “A wonderful film about an Orthodox Hassidic family in Tel Aviv wrestling with the modern world – at once very Jewish, but universal. It was this year’s Israeli submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – a great opening night film for PJFF.” The film will screen on Sunday, June 16, and will be preceded by a reception for pass holders and sponsors. And speaking of pass holders, that is another attractive feature of the festival.
“The price of a pass remains at only $85. With this unlimited pass, one can see 16 films, which makes the price of each film about $5,” says Sher, who frequently attends Jewish and international film festivals in other cities with her husband, Paul. “We pay far more than that when we attend film festivals in other parts of the country. I think Portlanders are very lucky to have this opportunity.
Foster notes that the film center bases its final decisions on the lineup by balancing whether a film fits best into the PJFF or one of NWFC’s other festivals such as the International Film Festival, Reel Music or Voices in Action: Human Rights on Film.
“From the center’s point of view, we want excellent films that while they speak to Jewish culture and experience, tell more universal stories that can also speak to a non-Jewish audience,” says Foster. “Films that are good enough that they play in any context, not just a narrow, subject-driven Jewish film festival.” That goal fits well with what IJS founder, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, envisioned when he created the festival. “It’s really accomplished what I hoped it would,” he says. “A high percentage of attendees are non-Jews, which means we are able to provide an understanding of Jewish issues through film that they wouldn’t get any other way.”
He says Jewish attendees also gain new insights thanks to the festival’s selection of films from numerous countries, perspectives and experiences. Marcia Starr, who attended the first coastal film weekend organized by Gloria Olds more than two decades ago, took over as chair of the coastal weekend for subsequent years. “We offered a weekend package that included the films, lodging and food, or portions thereof. From the get-go, people were happy to have a Jewish Film Festival and seemed to accept a less than optimal situation,” she says, noting that films were projected on
a wall at the motel. “When the film festival came to Portland, it was thrilling,” says Starr – a sentiment that seems to continue to prevail as thePJFF heads into its 21st season.