Topic: Film Festivals as Ritualized/Religious Events
Brochure for the 2004 Jewish South Film Festival“'Secular Jews,' Plotkin says, 'come to the Jewish film festival as if it were their High Holiday.'” (Joe Berkofsky, "From Celluloid to Synagogue…")
"’The Jewish film festival is my favorite Jewish holiday,’ wrote a respondent on an audience questionnaire at a recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. With festivals drawing nonaffiliated Jews as well as regular synagogue-goers, that's not a surprising sentiment. And with the burgeoning number of festivals, it's a holiday millions are observing.’ (Renata Polt, “The Arts: The Multiplex as Temple”)
The language employed to describe audiences’ experiences at film festivals frequently mirrors that used to describe Jewish holiday and Sabbath observance. The festival itself takes on ritualized characteristics, serving as a repeated, yearly communal experience and expression of ethnic identity for Jewish audience members, and represents the nexus point at which religious identity yields to a more flexible ethnic identity.
From the filmgoer’s perspective, the screening functions as both a communal and individual event. Sitting in a dark theater with others allows for an intimate experience between viewer and film (and by extension with the filmmaker who is often conflated with the content onscreen in light of the increasing number of personal documentaries screened at Jewish festivals), and between one viewer and another. Festival programmers argue that simply sharing a viewing experience translates into a Jewish communal act, while communal leaders argue that the screenings themselves are insufficient. They charge festival directors with the task of prioritizing outreach work to the unaffiliated in their audience-building and program planning.
The Synagogue as Metaphor
In both the popular press and policy reports, writers often employ the metaphor of the synagogue to describe the role of the theater space and the festival in general. The metaphor applies if we consider the following:
1. At various times in American Jewish history the synagogue has served as a focal point for the focused gathering of Jews. The film festival can be viewed as a similar focal point, gathering Jews who neither live in primarily Jewish neighborhoods nor heavily affiliate with communal organizations. The festival has become the communal organization, in a sense, offering volunteer and social opportunities as an alternative to both the synagogue and previous communal organizations that functioned as ethnic identification points.
2. It is not the physical building itself (synagogue or theater) that provides the heart of the experience (although the ornate nature of structures like the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Castro theater both hold power). Rather, the conversations and socializing preceding and following the films/prayer play a key role in the overall communal experience. The chance to greet friends on the ticket line and in the theater at this annual event mimics that of the high holidays when old friends and relatives reunite. It suggests a delicate balance between the passive and active; filmgoers both actively reunite with one another through their attendance, and are simultaneously reunited by the festival itself, which becomes a a seasonal drama in which they are mere participants.
3. Many Jewish festivals develop their own accompanying traditions and rituals, mimicking the liturgical nature of prayer, with the San Francisco festival offering numerous examples. The SFJFF’s live organ opens evening screenings in the Castro, while the well-known marquee outside marks the theater as both a general public space and a particularly Jewish one for ten days each July. The festival also produces a new trailer each year, celebrating the event’s spirit and inclusive diversity on which the organizers pride themselves. Like the festivals themselves, the content of film programs tends to cycle and repeat, also approaching the liturgical. Holocaust films and films about Jewish communities outside the US (the 'Lost Tribes' films as NY festival director Aviva Weintraub terms them) are dependable favorites, suggesting audiences’ insistence on the value of viewing new films which recycle well-worn subject matter.
1. “As much as we often roll our eyes, the audiences love them. It’s often the Jews from that region [like the Delta] who travel to the festival to see themselves on screen.” -- Quote from film festival director on the popularity of films like Delta Jews, which portray Jews in specific regions or countries. In relation to this quote, what are the various meanings of Jews watching themselves onscreen? What is the expected value of the experience?
2. What role do festivals play for the filmmakers producing content? How might they serve as a rite of passage for Jewish filmmakers using video to express ethnic identity?