STAMFORD – Ten years ago, a group of Stamford JCC members put together a list of eight Jewish-themed films and launched the week-long JCC Jewish Film Festival.
Lisa Mallenbaum-Goldberg, a former TV producer, was a member of the original committee. At the time, the closest Jewish film festival was in Westchester, N.Y. Stamford JCC members Nancy and Richard Freedman offered to screen the films in their theaters, the State Cinema in Stamford and the Garden Cinema in Norwalk, and donated seed money for the experiment. “Without the Freedmans, we wouldn’t even have been able to try out the idea,” Mallenbaum-Goldberg says.
The event was well-attended enough to add “annual” to its name, and by its third year, the festival had grown to include two weeks of literature, arts, and performances, in addition to film. In 2005, Mallenbaum-Goldberg was asked to serve as festival chair, a position she has held ever since. In 2008, the event was reorganized to include other art forms, and renamed the Jewish Arts & Film Festival of Fairfield County. But it still holds a special place for great film.
“There’s such a hunger out there for this kind of Jewish culture and it’s so gratifying to help meet that need,” she says. “I love being involved, from finding the movies, seeing what’s out there and what the buzz is about, and bringing them here.”
To mark its anniversary, the festival will include an exhibit and presentation by Judaica artist Gary Rosenthal, who will also lead a multi-generational menorah workshop. “Most people have a Gary Rosenthal piece and don’t know it,” she says. “When they see his artwork, there’s a click: people are familiar with his work but not with the artist, so when we discovered that he does workshops where you can make your own Gary Rosenthal piece, we said, ‘Let’s bring him.’”
The festival appeals to the general community as well, Mallenbaum-Goldberg says, especially film buffs. “Most of the interest comes when the film engages another aspect of the community,” she says. “When we screened a film about the Jews of Ireland, it also engaged the local Irish community. While our primary mission is to provide cultural offerings to the Jewish community, we also do as much outreach as we can about the festival’s independent films. If you’re a film buff, it doesn’t matter that it’s a ‘Jewish’ film if it’s an excellent film.” Twice now, including this year, the committee has selected films that have gone on to receive Academy Award nominations.
Since its early years, the committee has been careful to create a well-rounded film program, says Mallenbaum-Goldberg. “There’s so much out there, that we didn’t want to make the festival about Holocaust films only. The Israeli film industry has grown in output and quality, as has international Jewish film. We try to bring a mix of comedy, drama, and documentary that touch upon a range of topics, some of which we have no idea about.”
For example, this year’s festival includes a documentary on the Jewish soldiers who fought in the Civil War, a fact not widely known. “With each film, no matter the genre or the country of origin, we want to offer a slice of Jewish culture that has some commonality with Jews everywhere,” she says.
Mallenbaum-Goldberg hopes to see the festival continue to grow. “Every year, we see more people in attendance and we’re able to delve further into the festival world to get those up-and-coming filmmakers and big-name filmmakers,” she says. “I really believe that our event can become one of the premiere Jewish film festivals in the country.”
For a full program: www.jewishartsandfilm.org