Balancing act

Return of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival

The 2022 film 'Shttl' screens Nov. 5 at the Dairy Arts Center as part of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy Ukrainian Producers Hub.

Now in its second decade, the Boulder Jewish Film Festival is trying something new.

“The reality of programming is that I don’t get to invite the movies that are out there; I have to deal with the movies that I actually have,” says founding director Kathryn Bernheimer. “And sometimes they just present themselves in such a way that it makes sense to create a series within the festival that allows people to gain a deeper understanding of the subject, to look at something from various perspectives.”

Bernheimer, a former critic and author of two books on Jewish movies, has been programming the Boulder Jewish Film Festival (BJFF) for 11 years now, and her festival has a history of covering all aspects of the cinematic Jewish experience.

“I always want to have a variety of films,” she says. “So I have documentaries and features. I have contemporary films, films that deal with history. I have upbeat, amusing, entertaining, and I have serious, heavier films — so it all has to be a balance.”

And for this year’s BJFF, running Nov. 2 through Nov. 12 at the Dairy Arts Center, Bernheimer will be striking that balance while devoting more than half the lineup to two governing themes: Vanished World, which explores the culture of shtetls, and Israel at 75, which looks at the history of the Jewish nation-state established in 1948.

“I’m not at all focused on the conflict in the Middle East,” Bernheimer is quick to explain about Israel at 75. “That’s sort of defined the narrative of Israel for so long and there’s so much more to look at. So we’re trying to put a human face on Israel.”

‘To create community’ 

And though the five movies of Israel at 75 — Elik and Jimmy, June Zero, 1341 Frames of Love and War, Barren and Reckonings — came together through intention, the movies that comprise Vanished World came together almost coincidentally around the new release, Shttl.

Set in a shtetl on the Polish-Ukrainian border on the eve of the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the Yiddish Shttl has garnered positive reviews on the film festival circuit, so Bernheimer booked it right away.

“Then I was approached by CU’s College of Music, Yonatan Malin [an associate professor at CU’s College of Music and Program in Jewish Studies],” Bernheimer says. “And he wanted to bring in a violinist, Alicia Svigals, who was a founding member of The Klezmatics, a world foremost klezmer violinist, to play with a Jewish silent film.”

That film, The Man Without a World — also set in a shtetl — is the first silent film to grace the BJFF. And since Svigals will be attending the festival, Bernheimer decided that some context might be helpful for audiences and booked the 2010 documentary about The Klezmatics and klezmer music: On Holy Ground

Add to that lineup Vishniac, a documentary about Roman Vishniac’s photographs of shtetls, and BJFF attendees have a chance to understand a culture and a way of life that has all but been eradicated.

“Our mission is to create community. To engage the community, to provide opportunity for social interaction and group learning,” Bernheimer says. “And we use film to accomplish that.”

Active listening

As you may expect from these selections, BJFF also uses music to achieve its goal of bringing people together. “The mitzvah of music or the magic of music,” as Bernheimer puts it.

To that end, two contemporary documentaries will bookend this year’s festival: Rock Camp, about Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp founder David Fishof, and Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage? 

And like the movies featured in Vanished World and Israel at 75, talkbacks will follow each screening.

“From the very beginning, I have never presented a film without a discussion afterward,” Bernheimer says. “They’re not lectures. I’m not trying to get panel discussions up there. I want the audience to have an opportunity, just as you would with your family: You go to a movie, you come home and you talk about it.”

And that family atmosphere, free of pretension and full of exploration, is Bernheimer’s aim with BJFF — a place for those “who want to understand the Jewish experience as it’s depicted on screen.” 

ON SCREEN: Boulder Jewish Film Festival. Nov. 2-12, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. $18-$25 per screening (on sale Oct. 6)