Film is an excellent tool to share unique cultural experiences with a global audience. It allows people to tell their stories, educate and inspire. However, movie-goers have a comfort zone; the desire to see movies beyond one’s social, political and cultural truth is small. Film festivals such as the NC Black Film Festival, Cinema Sisters International Film Festival, Cucalorus Festival and their Lumbee Film Festival, as well as the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival (WJFF) are working to bridge the gap in N.C.
For three Thursdays in August, the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival will screen three films at the Point Theatre as a part of their mini summer film series. After the production, audience members can enjoy free ice cream from Heavenly Sweet.
“[Heavenly Sweet] has a lovely courtyard so people can come together to talk about the film and meet new people,” co-chair of the film selection committee, Mimi Kessler, explains.
Kessler has been selecting films for the WJFF for four years. Previously, she was a loyal attendee and eventually was asked to be a part of the committee. “I fell in feet first,” Kessler recalls. “I’m a film nerd and frequented Cinematique when I came to Wilmington. I’ve always had an interest in indie films, and most of these films are indies.”
Kessler’s goal is to choose films that satisfy and entertain a wide demographic. As a result, they usually screen one drama, one comedy and one documentary every summer.
“Our films are not just about educating people; it’s more about exposure to Jewish culture that can take place in any country,” Kessler reminds.
The first film, screening on Aug. 8, is a drama titled “The Cakemaker.” Filmed in Germany and Israel with English subtitles, “The Cakemaker” tells the story of Thomas, a young German baker who is having an affair with an Israel married man who dies in a car crash. Thomas heads to Jerusalem to find answers. Keeping his secret to himself, he ends up working at his lover’s widow’s bakery.
With a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the 2018 film covers LGBTQIA+ and religious themes through the lens of Jewish culture.
On August 15, they also will screen the documentary, “The Spy Behind Home Plate.” The 2019 film tells the story of Moe Berg, a brilliantly talented Jewish catcher and fielder who played baseball during its Golden Age. Although few people know he joined the Office of Strategic Services (now the CIA) to spy on the Nazis’ atomic bomb program for the U.S.
Showing documentaries allow WJFF to present unique stories from within the community that can help break apart stereotypes. Last year “93 Queen” showcased an orthodox community in Brooklyn that had an emergency squad entirely made up of Hasidic men. The women in the community believed there should be women on the team. Initially, they were denied, but a forward-thinking community member raised enough funds for an all-women force to buy an ambulance. Now, the all-women core is training to be EDM’s within all five boroughs and other cities.
“People were amazed by the film,” Kessler recounts. “They had no idea. People say, ‘I know about orthodox women; they sit in a separate section in the synagogue and don’t show their ankles.’ It’s an accurate depiction of modern orthodox women who are still Kosher.”
On August 22, to lighten the series, “Love in Suspenders” is a 2019 flick following Beno and Tammy’s love story. They meet when Tammy hits Beno with her car, setting the stage for their relationship’s fair share of ups and downs. In traditional rom-com fashion, love wins in the end.
“Comedies are hard to choose because you wonder if everyone is going to find it funny,” Kessler explains, “but we’ve gotten good feedback in the past, and this year’s comedy is hilarious!”
Every season, Kessler and her co-chair Barry Salwen search for new films independently and preview as many as they can. “My first year, I previewed 76 movies and shorts to come up with nine films and three shorts,” Kessler says. “This year, I got it down to under 50, but it’s a lot of watching!”
On Kessler’s five-point scale, a perfect five is a well-produced, well-edited and well-acted production with a good theme that reaches Jews and non-Jews. Four and five scale movies make it to the committee who then make the final decision.
“[When choosing films] what squeezes the life out of us is when they are out of our budget,” Kessler recounts. “As much as we want them, we can’t afford it. But, the next year we’ll go back and negotiate again.”
Along with their spring and summer events, WJFF also has an outreach program with New Hanover County high schools. During sophomore year students in the county learn about the Holocaust. WJFF offers a field trip in the spring and fall semesters to Thalian Hall, where they screen “Fanny’s Journey.” The film follows Fanny and a group of children in hiding attempting to relocate to Switzerland. Fourteen-year-old Fanny ends up leading a group of 28 children to safety by herself. The film explores themes of grief, tragedy and courage.
“So many young people have never heard about the Holocaust,” Kessler explains. “Because of what’s happening with deniers, it’s a little disconcerting with all of the hate crimes. We think it’s crucial young people know it did happen; this is the way it happened and children were involved.”
In the future WJFF hopes to expand their cultural outreach programs to university students and younger students. Perhaps, kids’ films will be screening their future, too.
“Also I’d like to see us screen some retro films like ‘Exodus’ and ‘Moses on the Rock,’” Kessler giddily explains. “Everyone has seen them, but a lot of people haven’t seen it on the big screen. Some people may say, ‘Didn’t that just go to Netflix?’ But there are just some films that have to be seen on the big screen!”