Film & TV

From Abortion to Gay Rights, the Miami Jewish Film Festival Is Pushing Creative Boundaries

A comedy about abortion. A documentary chronicling the gay experience in Israel. The avant garde work of a legendary film director.

These are not obvious choices for a relatively conservative Jewish audience. But Miami Jewish Film Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg isn't taking the obvious route to film festival success in Miami.

See also: New Miami Jewish Film Festival Director Igor Shteyrenberg: 2014 Films Will "Punch the Wind Out of You"

Over the last month or so, Shteyrenberg and his festival have held multiple free screenings for both members and the public alike. Chef, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, The Ghosts of the Third Reich, Obvious Child, and The Dance of Reality make up the first chunk of films that the festival has presented to audiences over the last two months, and Undressing Israel screens at the Cosford Cinema this Thursday.

With a simple look at the issues those films address -- everything from unplanned pregnancy to abusive fathers to food porn -- one can see how truly limitless the possibilities are.

"At its core, Miami Jewish Film Festival is about celebrating artists who push creative boundaries. Our unique year-round programming initiative presents an opportunity for audiences in Miami to explore film as an art form that provokes thought and educates," Shteyrenberg says. "The festival has become not only a showcase but a brand that testifies to the diversity and vitality of Jewish filmmaking in the world today."

The programming above already shows just how much there is to Jewish cinema, especially in films you'd next expect to find. Films for foodies, documentaries about the entertainment industry, abortion comedies, surreal journeys through a famous filmmakers past, and queer life in the Holy Land. 

The assumption that Jewish cinema is stuck in the past is one that's outdated, Shteyrenberg asserts. "A film festival must keep trying to remain challenging, provocative, and responsive," he says. "We have presented a diverse and artistically strong program that has delighted and surprised our audience, both old and new."

Thankfully for him and his festival, most of his regular guests have found that the films prove to be a rewarding experience.

That's not to say programming progressive films for his audience isn't a challenge. Shteyrenberg says he panics about how some audience members might react to certain situations -- say, a film that opens with a young woman doing stand-up comedy about the funky stuff that gets left on her panties, among other jokes about the reality of women's bodies.

But a little stress is nothing compared with the knowledge that the community and committee are open to his decisions. "They're very open to the progressive ideas I have introduced about how to further develop and expand the festival into a year-round effort that crosses cultures, topics, and lifestyles," he says.

And a year-round effort it is. These film events are taking place long after the close of the last Miami Jewish Film Festival in February.

"Telling me to take a vacation from film is like telling a child to take a vacation from playing, as Stanley Kubrick once said," Shteyrenberg quips.

So no vacations for the director, especially with all of the great programming he's put on the horizon. In addition to the return of festival film Ida to multiple Miami theaters, this Thursday night's free screening of Undressing Israel is a big one. The event will be hosted by the Miami Herald's Steve Rothaus, who will be introducing the film and moderating a Q&A with director Michael Lucas.

In addition to these new films, the festival is working with the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU to launch the Cinema Judaica exhibition, featuring newly restored classic Hollywood films from the 1940s; Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement, and Ernst Lubitch's To Be or Not to Be. Later in the year, MJFF will be partnering with the Miami Beach Cinematheque on its second annual Masters of Jewish Cinema series with a spotlight on a legendary Oscar-winning filmmaker. For now that filmmaker remains a secret, but in September we'll all be able to find out who.

Until then, it's anyone's guess where the Miami Jewish Film Festival and its boundary-pushing director go next.

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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.