Now in its 17th year, the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival continues to highlight stories about the Jewish experience, both contemporary and historical, for Inland Northwest audiences. But this year, like every other festival in the world, things look a little different: The organization is taking a cue from prominent film events like Sundance and South by Southwest and has converted to a virtual model for 2021.
Neal Schindler, director and co-chair of the festival, says that putting on an online-only festival presents a whole different set of challenges from the in-person event.
"At the beginning, there was a day or two where I was like, 'This is going to be less work,'" Schindler says. "But there are a lot of moving parts. Normally, this is a festival that has three features over one weekend. And this time around, it's got seven features and two shorts over 10 days"
Of those features on the festival's upcoming roster, Schindler points to the intense drama Incitement (screening March 4-7) as a particular highlight. Israel's entry to the 2019 Academy Awards, this is an inexorable dramatization of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's 1995 assassination, following political radical Yigal Amir as he fastidiously plots the murder, a reaction to the Rabin-led Oslo Peace Process.
"This film is looking at a very significant turning point in Israel and Israeli political history," Schindler says. "The Israeli peace movement of the mid-'90s, which was more or less embodied by Rabin, was fueled by hope. And from Amir's perspective, it was a futile or naive hope that wasn't going to lead to anything but more Israeli casualties. That was his belief.
"But I think beyond just his own individual characteristics and personal experiences, we've seen so recently this toxic blend of fringe politics and, in many cases, radically interpreted scripture... lead to some extremist, violent behavior."
If ever a film demanded an after-screening discussion, it's Incitement, and Eastern Washington University Professor Rob Sauders will offer a historical and political perspective following the March 4 premiere.
Those Who Remained (March 9-12) is another of Schindler's favorites from the 2021 fest, a Hungarian film set in the aftermath of WWII. It's about a doctor who is still recovering from his imprisonment in a concentration camp, where his wife and children died. He strikes up an unusual friendship with one of his young patients, a 16-year-old orphan girl whose parents have gone missing in the Holocaust. She still holds out hope that they're alive, though, and her desire for an emotional anchor leads to her relying more and more on the lonely doctor's company.
"These characters are genuinely trying to re-integrate into life in Hungary, with the understanding ... that communism is going to have a really significant effect on everyone's life," Schindler says.
Those Who Remained is really a story of trauma, and about a relationship that is either ethically troubling or some kind of two-sided coping mechanism.
"Apart from all of the overtones and undertones of that, it's a post-Holocaust film with two survivors at very different stages of life, and that sort of dual character study in the relationship study is so lovely, and I think it's very artful," Schindler says.
Other films on this year's program include Crescendo (March 3-6), a German musical drama about the conductor of an Israeli-Palestinian youth orchestra; They Ain't Ready for Me (March 6-9), a documentary following a Black rabbinical student and anti-violence activist in Chicago; and The Crossing (March 7-10), a family-friendly adventure in which children survive in the wilderness as they flee the Nazis.
For the ideal festival experience, viewers are encouraged to start the films at their designated times. But if you're unable to watch a given film at its premiere time, you'll still have a three-day window to view it.
Several of the festival's entries will be followed by filmmaker and expert Q&As, some of which will immediately follow the initial film screenings and others of which, due to time zone differences, will occur the following day. The benefit of that delay, Schindler says, is that more folks can see the film during its viewing window and attend the talk-back.
Schindler says that in the seven years he's been a part of the festival, he's seen countless movies about the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those are important subjects, to be sure, but he's hoping that next year he'll be able to book enough films that don't deal with those two common topics, and that he's able to further broaden genres — more comedies, coming-of-age dramas and even horror films centered on the Jewish experience.
And it's critical, he says, that the festival keep bringing those experiences to the forefront, especially at a precarious time when stories about collective culture and the human spirit feel as necessary as ever.
"We have a following, and not just within the Jewish community," Schindler says. "[People] are really committed to attending, and I think that it's important that it happened this year." ♦
Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival • Wed, March 3 through Fri, March 12 • Festival passes $30-$50, individual tickets $5-$8 • sajfs.org • 747-7394