Betsy R. Schneier recalls what a gamble it was to start a Jewish film festival in Seattle back in 1995. At the time, less than half a dozen Jewish film festivals existed in the United States. Would anyone show up?
Schneier, then the board president of the American Jewish Committee Seattle chapter, and AJC Seattle director Nancy Vineberg were looking for new ways to draw more attention to their organization’s work and bring the culturally diverse and geographically dispersed local Jewish community together. Despite the risks, a film festival felt like a natural fit for Seattle.
“Seattle was very much a film-going town, and there were a lot of indie cinemas here,” Schneier says. “It was at a time of great synergy between film as an art and as cultural expression, and in our city, going out to see indie and foreign films became really popular as weekend entertainment.”
There was no targeted funding for the first Seattle event, little staff, and no big publicity blitz to pull it off. They chose a small venue, the cozy Grand Illusion cinema in the University District. And just five films were screened, reflecting Israeli, Swedish, Polish, Sephardic, and African American perspectives on Jewish identity.
Yet from its modest beginnings, the fest was a resounding hit. “We had no idea who would show up at the Grand Illusion,” Schneier recalls. “But there were lines down the block.” In fact, the turnout and enthusiasm were so high that in 1996, Deborah Rosen, the incoming AJC board president, took another leap of faith by moving the event into the 800-seat King Cat Theatre, where it also prospered.
Eventually, the festival grew so big that in 2012 it moved on to become part of the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s year-round Arts + Ideas offerings. “It’s found a wonderful home there,” says Rosen. “They’re able to do more family activities, and it’s become the centerpiece of their entire cultural program, very favorably impacting and influencing our community.”
Running parallel to the global explosion of Jewish film festivals — there are now at least 170 festivals, mostly in the United States, but also thriving in cities like Warsaw, Budapest, Munich, Amsterdam, and Moscow — the annual cinema extravaganza has evolved over a quarter century into a major event serving about 7,000 movie-goers a year at locations around Seattle, Mercer Island, and now Issaquah.
This year’s festival will showcase 30 films along with director, actor, and expert talks; musical and catered events; a curated short film series; senior matinees; and educational programs for students.
“We are really interested in showing films about the complexity, the diversity, and the fascinating stories of the Jewish world,” says Pamela Lavitt, the festival’s director since 2005 and head of the Arts + Ideas department. “The founders wanted to build bridges with the overall Jewish community in Seattle. They wanted to bring people together [and] build solidarity with other groups.”
Lavitt points to the difficulty getting Jews from diverse religious and cultural affiliations into the same room. “The festival drew them all in, to sit side by side, and that really broke the ice,” she says. “It’s still representative of what the Stroum [JCC] and the festival try to do today — invite in the Jewish and wider community to feel a sense of ownership, of Jewishness, and Israeliness, and break down fault lines through cinema.”