Long-running Jewish film festival adapts to increasingly virtual world

By Connor Dziawura

When it came to the timing of last year’s Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival — considered the longest-running film festival in the Valley — organizers were lucky.

The event, which drew nearly 13,000 visitors to Scottsdale, Tempe and Peoria theaters across two weeks, came just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing many businesses to temporarily halt operations and future events to cancel altogether.

“We were so lucky. It was amazing. Seriously,” recalls Barry Singer, the festival’s co-Executive Director. “Our tradition is we start the Sunday after Super Bowl, however that works out. … (The virus) really had no effect on us then. It was the following few weeks.

“So we were incredibly lucky — and also lucky that we had so much more time to plan (for the 2021 event) than some festivals, Jewish or not, that might’ve had a late spring, early summer. They had the toughest times. We’ve at least had pretty much the full year to plan.”

That time planning culminates with the 25th anniversary of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, set directly for moviegoers’ screens from Sunday, February 14, to Wednesday, March 3. As a virtual event, it will include three extra days of films this year.

Viewers can choose from more than 30 feature-length and short films, building their schedules in a flexible format. Some screenings will be followed by interviews with filmmakers and experts. Individual films cost $12, while the festival pass (all films) is $180.

Films will be available for 72 hours once posted, with viewers allotted 48 hours to finish screenings after they start a film — though pausing, rewinding and switching devices during that time are allowed.

A free screening of the documentary “Shared Legacies” will precede the festival, at 7 p.m. Saturday, February 13, to coincide with Black History Month.

“It investigates the relationship between the Jewish and African American communities over the years and through the civil rights movement,” according to Singer. “It’s actually a perfect film for the time. We always coincide with Black History Month, so that is a natural for us and it’s a gift to the community.”

When it comes to curating films, Singer says organizers don’t want certain subjects, like the Holocaust, to weigh too heavily on the lineup. Acknowledging that Jewish film festivals can have “heavy films,” however, Singer admits finding lighter ones can pose a challenge. Still, having a balance, whether comedy, drama or international, is key.

“As we organize the festival, first of all, pretty much it’s any film that we feel is a quality film that has some Jewish content — and that is very subjective,” Singer explains. “It’s one step above the cameraman’s Jewish and many steps below an older Yiddish film, for example.”

Many of the films are internationally produced.

“Most films are not U.S. films; most of them are international,” Singer continues. “We’ve had Polish films, we’ve had Argentinian films — you name it, country of origin. And often I’ve noticed ‘country of origin’ is very mixed, so you’ll actually see in the final credits multiple countries involved. And I find that very, very interesting.”

The “add-ons,” as Singer calls them, are a notable element. Those are the interviews/discussions, which are pre-recorded — live Q&As, after all, would be “anarchy,” Singer jokes.

“That’s one of the biggest things about going to festivals — you learn more,” Singer says. “I personally love that on TV series when there’s extras. I’m a ‘Walking Dead’ fan completely; I love the discussion show that is afterward.

“I am in awe of actors and how they manage to inhabit a character and yet still be able to talk about the character as if it’s a separate person. That ability is just almost — it’s another world to me, the more I know about it.”

Singer says he and fellow Co-Executive Director Jerry Mittelman quickly figured the 2021 event would have to go virtual, as last year’s mid-March regular board meeting did the same. About a month or two later, he says, the decision was made.

Singer uses adjectives such as fascinating, interesting and frustrating in describing the switch, adding that planning was “more intense than it has been over the years.” Plus, the festival won’t be able to accurately track how many viewers are in each living room.

“There’s a lot of moving parts; there’s a lot to learn. So, in some way, of course, it’s been exciting, because after many years we had it down pat. Well, guess what? It’s not down pat,” Singer admits about the adjustment. “It’s starting from the beginning, in some ways, so that we had to both research various streaming companies then of course the film distributors have to be security comfortable with digital rights and then all of that.”

Singer can’t predict what next year’s festival will look like. But the plan is to continue screening films beyond the scheduled event.

Last October, in fact, the festival launched the Molly Blank Elder Love Series — sponsored by the Molly Blank Fund — through which residents of 40 Valley senior communities can watch a free film each month on their closed-circuit TVs.

Moving forward, thanks to the new virtual technology, Singer says it makes sense to continue to show audiences films. The plan is to offer at least one per month throughout 2021; sign up for the monthly newsletter at gpjff.org/gpjff-signup for announcements.

“The streaming service, which is quite costly, is an annual contract. If you’re going to have it, might as well use it,” he says. “And we’re constantly seeing films, we’re constantly screening films to see what next year would be like. So we have this extra resource.

“None of us know what next year will look like, of course,” he adds. “I can give an educated guess: I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll start seeing hybrid models. But I don’t know. I don’t know how much the distributors have thought that one through, because they set the rules in their own ways.” 

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