The Wilmington Jewish Film Festival has honored and brought together the Jewish community for five years now. With films depicting every branch of Judaism, the festival invites anyone and everyone to join in the celebration of their culture during the showing of nine new films at Thalian Hall.
Beverly Schoninger found inspiration to start the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival after living in Colorado and Florida, where Jewish film festivals were common. In March 2013, she traveled to the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival and then to New York to participate in the Jewish Film Festival Presenters Conference. It was then she asked Peggy Pancoe Rosoff to help her create one for Wilmington.
The two decided to test the waters in October of 2013 with just one film, “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy.” The film celebrates the contributions of Jewish songwriters’ to Broadway musicals, including artists like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin. A panel discussion followed with director Michael Kantor and a reception concluded the night. The event proved successful enough to continue the following year.
“It’s been unifying,” Rosoff says. “There are four different factions of Judaism that exist in Wilmington, and they all want to see the films because they represent different parts of Jewish history, culture and rituals.”
Today the festival takes place over three weekends, with around 2,000 filmgoers visiting Thalian each year. All the same, the event staff has grown from a handful of people to over 40 volunteers. Multiple receptions follow the films,and Sundays feature supper buffets for guests to meet, eat and discuss the films of the day.
“Beverly actually was approached at one of the dessert receptions one year,” Rosoff remembers, “and this couple told her they had chosen to move to Wilmington partly because it had a Jewish Film Festival, and they saw the culture being represented.”
The films featured in 2018’s festival cover myriad topics relating to love, identity and remembrance. Each delves into various aspects of Jewish culture like the importance of family and representation as it relates to the past and present. Audiences both Jewish and non-Jewish will find sincere emotions and situations which unifies them.
“The films are thought-provoking and heavy,” Rosoff mentions, “but there’s another side with the comedy, ‘Humor Me,’ and also the documentary about Sammy Davis Jr. There’s an entertainment factor in Jewish influences.”
Each film underwent a careful selection process through the festival’s film committee, led by Barry Salwen and Mimi Kessler. While the committee considered numerous requests from independent filmmakers and attendees of festivals from previous years, they also put a great deal of research into selecting the best films to fit their message.
“Our charter for our nonprofit is education and community relations,” Kessler notes. “And to educate not just Jews, but non-Jews as well in the community to what the history is and to close that gap.”
Weekend one begins with a showing of Eran Riklis’s subtle psychological thriller, “Shelter.” The film follows one-time top Mossad agent, Naomi, who must protect Mona, the former spouse of a Hezbollah leader, while she recovers from plastic surgery needed after betraying her partner. Naomi must protect Mona from her former comrades as they attempt to track her down so she can safely begin her new life.
“[‘Shelter’] is a ‘sit at the edge of your seat waiting for something to happen’ kind of film,” Kessler describes. The movie starts at 3 p.m. on April 22 and tickets are $17, which includes a buffet dinner catered by Peño Mediterranean Grill.
“Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” and “An Israeli Love Story” play the following Monday (Apr. 23) and Tuesday (Apr. 24). Both films retell true stories. “Sammy Davis Jr.” looks at the life of the American singer and his journey to discover his own identity, while becoming one of the most public black figures to embrace Judaism. Similarly, “An Israeli Love Story” follows a story between a man and woman during pre-independence Israel, but it also illuminates with a story of the love for Israel. Dessert receptions will follow both films.
Weekend two of the festival starts with Yonatin Nir’s “My Hero Brother,” an adventure documentary about a tour group of Israeli young adults with Down syndrome and their siblings trekking through the Himalayas, which was shot on location. As the group endures challenges, both physical and emotional, friendships form.
“The content is a little bit more mature,” Kessler explains, “but we’re encouraging teenagers and on up to come in and watch it. It’s also going to be a $5 ticket, as opposed to our usual $10 ticket, to encourage these groups to come learn and discuss the film.”
Following “My Hero Brother” is Ferenc Török’s “1945,” an award-winning black-and-white drama about a small Hungarian village post-WWII. The village is thriving and celebrating the upcoming wedding of the town clerk’s son when two Jewish men arrive. Soon, the atmosphere of the village changes as feelings of fear and guilt begin festering within the townspeople.
The festival’s final weekend sees a collaboration with local Wilmington pianist and composer Julia Walker Jewell. Prior to the May 1 showing of “Defiant Requiem,” a documentary about an artistic uprising within a Nazi concentration camp, Jewell’s short film, “Dance of the Coin,” will play at 7 p.m. The short film looks at the story of a 1942 German coin, one which Jewell found while purchasing coffee during a trip to South Carolina one day, and the many hands which might have held the coin at some point in its history.
Alongside the festival, Art in Bloom Gallery hosts an art exhibit entitled “Jewish Art: Diverse Cultures” (read here). Thalian Hall also will host pop-up exhibits of the art on Sundays and Mondays during the festival.