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The Changing Face of Jewish Film

Diversity of places, themes at this year’s Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival

Oct. 25, 2016
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Nineteen years ago, when David and Jerry Zucker presided over the opening of the first Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival, the movies screened that year were on 35-milimeter film delivered in heavy metal canisters. “You had to go to exercise class to get ready for carrying them into the theater,” says Micki Seinfeld, special events coordinator at the Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center and part of the festival’s programming committee.

Many things have changed. The eight selections in the 2016 Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival are all projected from digital files. “The industry has changed. The Israeli film industry has gotten so good,” says festival co-chair Cindy Benjamin. She recalls that some early submissions were closer to advertisements for Israel than fully wrought films. The Jewish Community Center’s chief membership officer Chad Tessmer leaps in: “The nature of Jewish life might be different than it was 20 years ago. This is reflected in the quality of the filmmaking—the diversity is tremendous.” 

Happily, some things remain the same. The festival’s mission has been constant: “Jewish film and films on Jewish topics from around the world,” Seinfeld says. 

The mission plays out in many forms on this year’s program. The festival opener (Sunday, Oct. 30), The Midnight Orchestra, is about a Moroccan Jew returning to his ancestral home decades after the family fled anti-Semitic unrest in the ’70s. In The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Tuesday, Nov.1), German director Lars Kraumei dramatized a courageous prosecutor in 1950s West Germany. Against the stubborn opposition of his colleagues and harsh judgments in the court of public opinion, Bauer was determined to hold Nazi war criminals to account. From the lighter side comes the documentary Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown (Thursday, Nov. 3) by French director Gregory Monro and a foodie’s delight, In Search of Israeli Cuisine (Thursday, Nov. 3) by American filmmaker Roger Sherman. 

As usual, the festival’s programmers chose a cross-section of films, topically and geographically. This year, Fritz Bauer is the only selection with a Holocaust theme. “The storytelling about the Holocaust has changed,” Benjamin says. “Nowadays they tend to be smaller stories about how those events played out in the lives of families and individuals.” 

You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate most of the offerings at this year’s event. “We are proudly the Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival, but the idea that it’s exclusive is false,” Tessmer says. “We are looking for accessibility—a broad universality in the Jewish experience.” 

The Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival runs Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at Marcus North Shore Cinema, 11700 North Port Washington Road. For more information, visit jccmilwaukee.org.

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