"It is no longer enough for us to just give access to Jewish-interest films. What is at stake for us now is to present the best of world cinema that has a cultural insight and value," Igor Shteyrenberg, director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, says boldly.
Leading the festival since 2013, Shteyrenberg has been able to grow MJFF into the third-largest Jewish film festival on the planet. Only the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival have larger budgets and programming scope.
The number of films presented during the two-week program has increased from 74 last year to 80 this year. More significant, however, is the number of entries Shteyrenberg considered. "This year, [we had] over 2,500 submissions, a 70 percent jump from last year," he says.
The high number of submissions bodes well for the quality of films that will premiere at this year's fest, which will screen nine North American premieres and three U.S. premieres. Appealing to a broader audience, the lineup features plenty of diverse films and high-profile titles that cinephiles outside the Jewish market highly anticipate. To start, MJFF will host the U.S. premiere of A Tale of Love and Darkness, the directorial debut of actress Natalie Portman.
Other notable films in the lineup include Baba Joon, the first Persian-language film shot in Israel and is Israel's submission for Oscar consideration; the romance It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, which Shteyrenberg compares to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise; and an apocalyptic thriller from Israel,
But the program has also made room for a cult classic. Festival attendees can enjoy a free outdoor event featuring Mel Brooks' Spaceballs at the Miami Beach SoundScape at the New World Center. It will be preceded by a live performance by New World Symphony fellows playing John Williams' iconic score for Star Wars.
This year also marks the inaugural short film competition, something Shteyrenberg hopes will provide aspiring filmmakers a chance to break into the industry. The festival has partnered with the well-known and highly respected U.S. foreign film distributor Film Movement to make this contest a reality. "We earned great feedback from many North American and international distributors who were impressed by the youth and large representation of directors coming out of our festival," the director explains. "Looking at the great year Jewish cinema has had, it only made sense to look once again at emerging talent, with this time around a competition category that provides added value and opportunity."
Shteyrenberg identifies himself as a secular Jew but notes he doesn't care for compartmentalizing and especially doesn't like the notion that there are degrees of "Jewishness" in contention. "I find this line of thought problematic," he emphasizes. "As a film festival, our responsibility is to present the best of world cinema and support all artists trying to share their stories."
Support from the festival's audience has been tremendous. Not long after the fest's lineup was announced, all screenings of A Tale of Love and Darkness sold out. As of
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"When you curate a film festival, it is almost like you are curating the arc of a number of conversations," Shteyrenberg says. "We hope to share an experience that renews and reinvigorates audiences' engagement with the moving-image art form beyond entertainment and distraction." Refusing to take full credit, however, he notes the 24-person committee chaired by Mark Kravitz as an essential support system.
Going on three years with the festival, Shteyrenberg believes there's still plenty of room for growth. "Like Sundance, South by Southwest, the Toronto International Film Festival, and many other prestige film festivals, our goal is to be a world-class destination film festival known for showcasing the best of cinema and providing audiences with an unparalleled opportunity to experience cinema amidst the inspiring natural beauty of greater Miami," he says.
Asked if he wants to see the festival become the largest in the world, Shteyrenberg remains modest. "I'm not interested in growing this organization just for the sake of any pride. I'm rather interested in providing a service to our community where everyone — despite socioeconomic background or ethnicity or religion — will have the opportunity to experience and celebrate art and culture. That is what has driven us to share such an aggressive year-round presence... With the tensions that are so sadly ever-present in our world today, we believe that film has the power to inspire tolerance and understanding and bridge cultural gaps. That truly is the leading inspiration in everything we strive to do."
Miami Jewish Film Festival
Thursday, January 14, through Thursday, January 28, at various venues in Miami. Visit miamijewishfilmfestival.net.