Jewish Film Festival celebrates 10 years, expands reach

cjff1“People still talk about films that we screened in year one or two,” said Debby Block, reflecting on a decade of helping run the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival that kicks off this weekend. “That means that you have truly touched people’s lives.”

Ten years ago, the first event was one evening of film with native Charlottean and filmmaker Jessica Burstein.  Now, with more films in more locations, three visiting filmmakers and 21 ticketed events, the 2014 festival will offer something for everyone.

“The festival appeals to people who like independent films,” said Rick Willenzik, CJFF executive director.  Though films reflect the Jewish experience in America and around the world, they are selected for universal appeal.

Festival-goers will recognize several entertainers in “When Jews Were Funny,” a documentary about Jewish humor featuring Howie Mandel, David Steinberg and Shecky Greene.  The film will screen at Temple Israel, 4901 Providence Road, on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. and will then screen Monday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. at Regal Birkdale Stadium 16 in Huntersville in a special series called “Mondays at the Lake.”

South Charlotte has historically served as “home base” for the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, but this year brings a major expansion north.  The CJFF is joining forces with a newly combined Jewish community in the Lake Norman area that has increased community and the capacity to support added screenings.

The Saturday screening of “When Jews Were Funny” will include a dessert reception after the film; before both screenings, a Jewish comic will do a little “shtick.”

“I find that (film) is an amazing way to learn about the world,” Block said, with Willenzik adding film breaks down barriers and creates dialogue between people of different faiths.

“The Jewish Cardinal” is a historical drama about the true story of Jean-Marie Lustiger, who maintained his identity as a Jew after converting to Catholicism, joining the priesthood and becoming the Archbishop of Paris.  In partnership with Mecklenburg Ministries, the CJFF will host a discussion lead by a rabbi and Catholic priest after the Wednesday, Feb. 26, screening.

The Charlotte Jewish Film Festival includes a Holocaust film each year.  “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus” tells the story of a Philadelphia couple who took great risk to bring 50 Jewish children from Nazi Germany to America in 1939.  The film will show once for a school group, and a second time for the general public on March 6, a Thursday, at 7 p.m. at the Sam Lerner Center in Shalom Park, 5007 Providence Road.

“You can study the Holocaust in a book but seeing a film about it brings it to life,” Willenzik said. Steven Pressman, the film’s director, will appear for both showings. Pressman’s wife is the granddaughter of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus.

Willenzik is particularly excited about an event called “Side Dishes,” a collection of short films screening March 5, a Wednesday, at 7 p.m. at the Sam Lerner Center. The evening will feature a visit from Adam Hirsch who directed “The Cake Lady,” named Best Short Film at the 2013 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The 90-year-old Cake Lady herself, Fay Tenenbaum, also is scheduled to come from Atlanta for the screening.

A freelance television producer by trade, Willenzik has been involved with the CJFF for four years.  During that time he has seen the both the Israeli and Jewish film grow and improve substantially.  The CJFF also will screen “Bethlehem,” a thriller about an Israeli officer and his Palestinian informant that swept the Israeli Academy Awards.

“Now you can find terrific Jewish films with good content,” he said.  Film selection is a year-round process of elimination that starts the summer of the previous year.

In the age of BluRay, video streaming websites and on-demand entertainment, the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival has no fear of the competition of convenience.  Audience numbers have grown substantially over the last 10 years, and the all-volunteer festival committee hopes to break last year’s benchmark of 3,000 tickets sold.

The secret to the festival’s success is simple: “You can’t beat seeing film with a community,” Willenzik said.

The Charlotte Jewish Film Festival will run Saturday, Feb. 22, through March 9.  Find more information, including tickets, venues and showtimes, at www.charlottejewish


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