With the Miami Jewish Film Festival opening January 15, buzz just keeps growing. Some screenings have already sold out, a talented group of filmmakers is getting ready to visit, and the lineup of films is as diverse as ever before. Even though it's been around for 18 years, it's astounding what director Igor Shteyrenberg has done in only his second year running what some would consider a niche festival.
"Over the past two years, we've shared a selection of films that highlight both the creativity and unique ways artists are using to tell stories and the impact these stories can have on a community. This year is no exception," Shteyrenberg says confidently.
Though last year's festival had its fair share of interesting events, "one look at the breadth of this year's program confirms that the festival is even more crucial today," he says. "We've striven to curate around salient themes and topics, and provide each audience member with the opportunity to discover, contemplate, and, in a way, determine, our shared human journey."
It's because of that determination to side-step the typical pitfalls of a Jewish film festival -- namely the relatively close-minded assumption that all Jewish films are about the Holocaust -- that the festival's program flourishes. It's not that there isn't room to reflect on something that deeply affected the Jewish people, but there needs to be room for more.
"This year's lineup is particularly diverse, including work by established directors alongside promising debuts by newly emerging talents. As artists continue to explore evolving forms of storytelling, we feel privileged to offer them a space to showcase their films and, hopefully down the line, provide enriching creative opportunities as well," Shteyrenberg explains.
"The array of new filmmaking voices in the program is especially impressive and, I think, memorable. New Israeli cinema has experienced an upsurge in recent years, and it is among young filmmakers that the change is most visible. So many films have been released over the past few years that undermine common stereotypes expected from Israeli or Jewish cinema."
It shows in the way the festival has decided to showcase the diverse works in its lineup: world premieres, a closeup on experimental filmmakers, all sorts of genres, first-time filmmakers, an abundance of female filmmakers, queer films, and more, are being featured this year.
"Our creation of new sections and thematic sidebars offer wonderful new discoveries and the ability to showcase even more of the year's most astounding and unseen films." He specifies by mentioning some of them: "Our Drive-In presentation of Israel's first sci-fi film, the Free Family Day Film event featuring a performance by the New World Connection, the Spotlight on German Cinema section, and so many others, all testify to the diversity and vitality of the Festival today."
But that's not nearly it. Debut films by some talented budding filmmakers will be well highlighted. "New young talent is vital to cinema, so we feel it's paramount to let the industry see it. Our New Voices In Jewish Cinema section is the perfect platform for introducing new films and filmmakers that may be unfamiliar," Shteyrenberg says.
"We're not going to just rehash what has come out of other international film festivals but premiere talent that might have slipped through the cracks. It's the first time audiences will be seeing or hearing many of these emerging voices. They speak with a strength and a passion and a clarity that's not compromised as they go into the process of making films at a higher creative level on the cinematic edge."
And what makes that incredibly exciting is the inclusion of so many films made by women this year -- a likely larger percentage than many of Miami's festivals have ever featured.
"We are thrilled to expand our focus on women in film this year, as it is a great honor for our festival to provide a platform for these talented filmmakers to shine and an opportunity to even out gender divisions within the industry. Of the over 45 features we will be premiering, 13 are directed by women, including acclaimed films such as Zero Motivation, Above & Beyond, and The Go-Go Boys."
In addition, the festival is featuring Israel's entry into the 87th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Though it wasn't shortlisted for an Oscar, it snagged a nomination at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards. And it's no surprise, considering the film's content -- the conclusion of a woman's attempt to get a divorce through rabbinical courts with her husband's acquiescence -- and the controversy it has sparked.
"Despite the controversy the film has received, or perhaps because of it, Gett has started a movement to change this contentious law. According to recent news, Israel's rabbinical court administration is now planning to show the film at the annual gathering of the country's rabbinical judges in February."
Shteyrenberg says about the film and the festival, "MJFF is all about facilitating peak experiences to advance filmmakers who have spent their lives elevating the cultural vibrancy of their community and the world, so the timing for this opportunity couldn't be better."
Just as exciting for anyone involved with the Miami Jewish Film Festival should be the fact that, as mentioned, many of the screenings have already sold out. "The festival has already more than doubled its ticket sales compared to the same time last year. And several noteworthy films have also sold out, and many others are imminent in the several next days."
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The noteworthy films to which Shteyrenberg refers are the opening-night film, Mr. Kaplan; the Nancy Spielberg-introduced screening of Above and Beyond; The Art Dealer; 5 to 7; Beneath the Helmet; one of two screenings of Zero Motivation; and two screenings of Gett. That, of course, doesn't mean you can't get into one of these sold-out films; there's an exciting -- and sometimes frustrating -- option that most festivals offer: rush lines.
So prepare to wait in line and get your tickets early at the door if you're as desperate to check out some of these great films as we are. As long as we're willing to believe just how cool the festival sounds -- and we very much are -- it will be worth it. After all, things look like they'll just keep moving on up for MJFF. Like Igor Shteyrenberg himself says: "It's not surprising why we feel the possibilities for the Miami Jewish Film Festival are limitless. It's our goal that the festival will continue to build a reputation for the caliber of films we showcase and the unique programming we bring to the forefront each year."