Ten years ago, Debby Block and Amy Montoni of the Charlotte chapter of Hadassah invited the women of their group to view two films. Since both movies were being shown the same night, they didn't call the film screening a festival; the term would've seemed laughable. When Block talks about that weekend, she even puts festival in air quotes.
They screened Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi as well as a short film, Veronika's Birthday, by local filmmaker Jessica Sue Burstein. About 140 women showed up for the screening. They deemed it a success.
Last year, more than 3,000 film fans saw 11 films as part of the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival (CJFF). Attendance at this year's festival, the 10th annual, is expected to top 4,000.
Block is (to quote a famous film) "shocked — shocked!" at its success. "Never, ever did I envision the festival getting this big and this popular," she says. "In my wildest dreams, I thought of two weekends." But even in that first "festival," there were signs of bigger things to come. "The participants kept pouring in and pouring in and we had to scramble to set up more and more chairs," recalls Block. "We realized then that Jewish film was definitely an area of interest in Charlotte."
Abdallah El Akal (right) in Zaytoun (Photo: Strand Releasing)
This year, the CJFF celebrates its 10th anniversary with more films, more partners and more venues than ever before. Thirteen movies are included in what organizers call "the core series," but more screenings have been created through partnerships with the Mint Museum, GayCharlotte Film Festival, UNC Charlotte International Film Series and CPCC's Sensoria. All told, 19 films and 22 events are part of the festival, which will be held Feb. 22-March 9. Several of the filmmakers will be in Charlotte for screenings of their films and to — as they say in Yiddish — kibitz with audience members afterward.
CJFF's volunteer director Rick Willenzik, an independent TV producer, has "been involved with the festival for half its life and, for the past two years, has led the film selection committee. He says that from the start, organizers knew they had a successful niche. "We've had our loyal followers — mostly Jewish people with a natural interest in films with Jewish themes — from the beginning," he says. "But we've worked to expand beyond our base to anyone with an interest in film."
Willenzik believes a festival of films by, for and about Jews actually has broad allure. "It's good to know your neighbor," he says, explaining the crossover appeal. "These are universal stories."
Besides having a Jewish theme, movies chosen for the CJFF have to tell a good story, says Willenzik. And while the screening committee might reach back a year or two for some films, they try to keep it fresh. "For me, as a consumer, I want to see a recent film," says Willenzik. "I don't want to see something I can get on Netflix."
It takes a village to run an all-volunteer, nonprofit festival. "It is a Herculean job and definitely an act of love for all the volunteers," says Block. Willenzik estimates there are about 50 volunteers involved in pulling off the festival, with 25 on the planning committee alone. The screening committee is made up of eight volunteers who may watch as many as 80 films to winnow it down to the final 13.
Fortunately for those on the committee, there's a source for the best new Jewish films. The Jewish Film Presenters Conference in New York helps organizers sort through what's out there — and identify the best. "We talk to organizers in other cities," says Willenzik. "We help each other out."
In the early days of the festival, Block didn't have a go-to source. "We really learned everything by trial and error," she recalls. "With no previous experience, I did not understand that you could ask ... distributors for [films] to preview and consider for free. The first year, I just went from Blockbuster to Blockbuster looking for films."
Now, the festival is so popular, the screening committee gets unsolicited films with requests to preview them.
After growing southward to encompass Ballantyne a few years ago (screenings are held at Ballantyne Village), the festival embraces Lake Norman this year with a "Mondays at the Lake" series that will feature encore screenings of CJFF highlights, plus an additional screening at Davidson College.
Although she's not one to kvell (gush with pride), the continued expansion surprises and delights Block, who marvels, "We have people now planning vacations around the festival."
(The Charlotte Jewish Film Festival will be held Feb. 22-March 9 at various venues. Admission is $10 for most films; some screenings are free. The opening night celebration costs $25. An all-festival pass (13 films) runs $145. Details at charlottejewishfilm.com.)