When we asked Ellen Wedner, director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, how this year's fest will compare with its predecessors, she put it bluntly: "Having movies will be the same." Wedner was joking, of course, but this year's festival does have a remarkably different look to it, compared to years past, with plenty of events in its lineup that audiences will be seeing for the first time.
From choral performances of Yiddish music to an animated film from China, the MJFF continues to expand its scope. Wedner said her goal is to "make [the festival] appealing to the Jewish community, but to make it universal as well."
New Times: What's new for the festival this year?
EllenWedner: We tried to expand what we do. In light of that, we have a few more directors and script writers coming. And we're doing a performance with a choral group following one of the films, which will be material directly from the film.
It seems like music is a big part of this year's events.
It's a wonderful extension to bring the film to life. This festival has three films with musical themes. The Boys of Terezin is about Yiddish music; two young teens sing Yiddish music in the film, which is interesting because Yiddish is often considered to be a dead language. Ladino: 500 Years Young is about another language disappearing; it'll be followed by a performance by Susana Behar, a local singer of Ladino music. It's bringing to life things that aren't always there.
What other standout films can you recommend?
We have a film with a lot of underwater footage from Israel called Dolphin Boy. And our final Sunday, at Intercoastal 8 Cinema, we're showing our first animated Jewish film, which is not a big niche -- and it's from China. When I was screening it, I turned to my husband and said, "I don't think I've ever screened a film from China for the Miami Jewish Film Festival." It's from a graphic novel that was published in China by a Chinese gentleman who wrote a novel about a Jewish girl in Shanghai during the Holocaust. Over 30,000 people ran to Shanghai for protection during that time, and there are still descendants of those people in China today. To have a film coming from China is very exciting to us.
What standards do you use to select films for the festival? Do you have a set of qualifications?
Nope. My personal thing is that I always seek out what I think is interesting. What I really always do is look at the best film that fits this audience. People say to me, "But this film played at this film festival or that festival." But Allentown, PA, may not have the interest or needs of the population that we do. So I try and look at things that make sense for our audience. The Lost Tribe of the Sephardic Jews [which chronicles the history of a tribe in Ecuador] is going to be a good example of that, because of our large Latin community. Vancouver may not find that scintillating, but somebody from Ecuador who isn't Jewish might say, "I come from a village in the hills; I want to see that film." You don't have to be Jewish to like the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
Any hometown talent featured in this year's festival?
In The Lost Sephardic Tribe, Rabbi Terry Bookman is in the film, and he'll be here at the festival. Dorfman, which stars Elliott Gould and Sarah Rue, was written by screenwriter Wendy Kout -- she grew up here until elementary school. And there's a piece I'm really proud of -- for the last seven years, the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education has sponsored the Young Filmmakers Institute for teens. Some of these teens have figured out that they really, based on this program, want to be filmmakers.
The Miami Jewish Film Festival runs Jan. 21-29 with screenings at Intercoastal 8 Cinema, Bill Cosford Cinema, and Regal Cinema South Beach. Visit the website for schedules, tickets, and more information.
Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.