Philadelphia Jewish Film and Media Finds its Film Festival Footing

In a black and white picture, a family poses for a picture in front of Monticello.
The Jewish Levy family at Monticello, the old estate of Thomas Jefferson | Courtesy of Menemsha Films

Forty two isn’t a number that’s often celebrated. It’s not a multiple of five that’s easily memorable, nor is it a multiple of 18, giving it significance in Jewish numerology.

But for Philadelphia Jewish Film and Media, the organization behind the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, 42 is still a number to salute.

The 42nd Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, taking place from Nov. 12-19, marks one year of the organization rebranding themselves from the Gershman Philadelphia Film Festival to PJFM in an effort to embrace the evolution of film and art to multimedia platforms.

This year’s film fest will spotlight seven international feature-length movies, a shorts program, a FilmShul course on Hollywood’s Jewish New Wave of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a brunch screening of “Funny Girl” in honor of the musical’s 55th anniversary next year. Most of the films will premiere at the Weitzman Museum of American Jewish History.

“One thing that was really important for all the films that we do — not just in the festival but throughout the year, throughout our annual programming — is I really want the films that we select to be diverse, and to really create a sense of hope at the end,” said PJFM Program Director Matthew Bussy.

Receiving hundreds of film submissions for the festival each year, PJFM’s screening committee must not only find films that are unique and represent a wide swath of Jewish life, but also factor in ways to remain relevant in an era where in-home film streaming has taken a bite out of cinema’s popularity.

Prior to the festival, some of the featured filmmakers shared their thoughts on their films and the changing film industry.

Antisemitism Beyond the Holocaust

On Nov. 13 and 14, documentarian Steven Pressman will have the Philadelphia premiere of his film “The Levys of Monticello,” the story of a Jewish family who came to own and preserve the Charlottesville, Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson.

Pressman’s documentary positions itself precariously in the conversation around discrimination and oppression. 

“Beyond simply telling the story of this family in Monticello, it allowed me to tell this broader story about basically the history of antisemitism throughout American history,” Pressman said.

Some Virginia residents in the 19th century were opposed to a Jewish family caring for Jefferson’s estate. While there were few Jews in the country during the time of the Revolutionary War, the population swelled from 15,000 to 150,000 by the Civil War. By the early 20th century, there were 3-4 million Jews living in the U.S. 

As the Jewish population increased, so too, did antisemitism. In the late 19th century, Virginia residents condemned the Jewish ownership of Monticello.

“The Levys of Monticello” explore the complexities of antisemitism and slavery during the Jewish family’s ownership of the Monticello estate. | Courtesy of Menemsha Films

“It’s the old story,” Pressman said. “People just don’t like Jews.”

While the victims of antisemitism, the Levy family continued Jefferson’s legacy of slavery, keeping the enslaved people who had for generations worked on the estate.

“How do you reconcile that with a Jewish family, with a Jewish owner that has enslaved people? And you can’t,” Pressman said. ‘I mean, no more than you can reconcile Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, with the paradox of the guy who, over the course of his life — Jefferson’s lifetime — owned 607 human beings.”

Pressman, a journalist prior to becoming a filmmaker 12 years ago, is drawn to little-known stories about Jewish life, which inspired him to learn more about the Levy family.

When he broke into the film industry about a decade ago, he was surprised by the desire for movies beyond Holocaust narratives.

“We still see a fair amount of Holocaust movies at a lot of Jewish film festivals,” he said. “And a lot of Jewish filmmakers are still telling Holocaust stories. Those are essential stories to be told. But I think my own experience goes to this: There’s so many other stories to tell in the Jewish world outside of the Holocaust.”

Jewish filmmakers today are interested in looking at issues with “moral ambiguity,” such as American Jews complicit in enslaving people, Pressman believes. There’s centuries of Jewish history, both American and international, worth exploring.

“A lot of Jewish filmmakers are looking for those issues that just challenge us to think about the world around us,” he said. 

Finding a Sense of Belonging

While Pressman is interested in looking at uniquely American experiences of Judaism, Israeli filmmaker Ofir Raul Graizer is making films about what America is like for outsiders.

His feature film “America,” premiering at the festival on Nov. 18, follows Eli, an Israeli swim coach living in the U.S., who returns to Tel Aviv after 10 years away, after his father’s death. When Eli visits his childhood friend and florist, Yotam, he meets his fiancee, who, like Eli, has a complicated relationship with her family.

“America” is inspired by Graizer’s own trip to Chicago a few years ago, his first trip to the U.S. 

Two men in athletic gear stand tired at the foot of a mountain.
Ofri Biterman and Michael Moshonov in “America” | Courtesy of Ofir Raul Graizer

Graizer was always fascinated with America, having grown up with American film, music and media woven into Israeli popular culture.

“I always thought it was big and impressive, but also scary, and complex and fascinating — always fascinating,” Graizer said of his childhood perception of America. “It was mostly distant. It was mostly very, very far away from my life, from where I grew up in.”

For the past 12 years, Graizer has been living in Germany, so the themes of relocation and immigration explored in his film come from a personal place.

“I really identify [with] the character Eli,” he said. “He kind of reinvented himself. He went to the U.S., and he changed his name and basically became another person, but his connection to his homeland is still something that he could never let go of.”

Admittedly, Graizer said, his relationship to Israel is complicated, and though he doesn’t address it directly in the film, he believes that everyone’s connection to their home country is “complex and messed up.” Throughout the canon of Israeli films, from the 1930s to now, filmmakers have explored this complexity.

Rather than the sensibilities of the filmmaker changing, Graizer believes the audience has been the changing force in film. Increased streaming of international films have given wide audiences the ability to view Jewish issues in unique ways, for better or for worse.

“The outside world is interested in the exotic things; it’s interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and interested in Orthodoxy because it’s interesting, it’s fascinating, it’s different,” he said.

Greater access to diverse stories can come at a cost to the quality of future films and television, Graizer said. Complex stories can become oversimplified, and nuances can be lost in translation when streaming services and filmmakers are looking to make a buck from complicated, culturally specific topics.

Film festivals are one of the few platforms that can combat trendy simplifications of personal stories.

“This is one of the most amazing platforms there are,” he said. “Where an audience can be exposed the same day — even on the same week — to four or five different representations and stories that often speak about the same thing, but from an entirely different angle.” 

A black woman stands in front of a colorful wall and amid a room filled with flowers.
Oshrat Ingadashet in “America” | Courtesy of Ofir Raul Graizer

The Future of Film Festivals

PJFM Executive Director Kristen Arter makes a similar argument to Graizer about the necessity of film festivals to the film industry.

When COVID lockdowns caused many theaters to shutter and for film studios to instead release movies onto streaming  platforms, PJFM also had to adapt. This year, the film festival is one week, instead of two. Audience feedback from last year’s film festival indicated that there were too many good films premiering, and not enough audience endurance to be able to watch them all. 

Combined with audience input, film festival survival is also predicated on playing unique films.

“If you have a choice between sitting in your home and watching Netflix, Amazon and all these things, you still are not going to tap into the same types of films that we’re presenting at the festival,” Arter said.

Audience members increasingly want to be challenged by films, Bussy said. Arter added that film festivals, where films are often accompanied by discussions or additional contexts to films, provide a space where audiences feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable.

“As challenging as they are, as upsetting as they may be, when the movie ends, they want to sit down and have a talk about it,” Bussy said.

According to Arter and Bussy, the success of a film festival comes down to the ability to both cast a wide net, selecting films that will resonate with audiences across age groups and religion, while also highlighting the unique and specific stories of lesser-known filmmakers.

“A slogan that we have is, ‘future of Jewish storytelling,’” Arter said. “And that’s bringing in both our past, our history, our legacy and looking to the future, and also being able to celebrate and come together in ways in an environment that feels safer for multiple generations to participate in.”

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