Behind the Scenes of the 2020 Ajijic Film Festival

Submitted by Elissa Hutner, JFF Committee Member

“The Jewish film festival is my favorite Jewish holiday,” wrote a recent respondent on an audience questionnaire. And that holiday is coming here now. The popularity of Jewish Film Festivals (JFF) is uncontested. More than a hundred Jewish Film Festivals launch worldwide. 

At its core, festival organizers face the same task: film selection. Festivals have ideals for the program they want and it’s up to the selection committee to meet those goals. Some festivals want a good mix of genre, subject, or international diversity. It varies; but to get on any potential list, the film must be Jewish. 

Meeting the Jewish standard may mean strictly focusing on films about Jewish history, culture, and identity, and films that reflect life through a Jewish lens.

Other committees take a broader view of Jewishness. Films can be Jewish enough if there’s a Jewish director or writer. Festivals have curated films that are Jew-ish, with themes determined relevant to Jewish communities, but also resonate with other cultures globally. Films have even been approved when their connection is merely geographic: Arab films that take place near Israel because the subject impacts Israel. 

This year’s JFF2020 committee of nine, under the leadership of Festival Director, Michael Sullivan, had the daunting task of selecting only eight films from about 60 shorts and films that met the set goals. 

Always keeping the audience in mind, JFF2020 wanted to finish with an international program of mixed genre films including at least one Latin American and one American film. It wanted films with high production quality and films that would generate vigorous audience discussion after the screening. But of course, the films had to Jewish.

So, it didn’t take long for the 100% Bedouin film to get axed. 

The process was intense. Committee members received digital files of about 56 films curated from numerous festival lists and sources by Festival Director, Michael Sullivan, to watch on their own. Every two or three weeks they submitted ratings, from 1-5, to the Director who collated and analyzed all the ratings, arriving at a joint rating for each film that any member had viewed. In between, the committee met for discussion, to make the case, pro or con about a film, to persuade colleagues to see the films from a different light. The smaller the pool, the harder it got. As more films were rated, leading films dropped down and were eliminated. Finally, 8 films out of 15 had to be finally selected.

Though one goal was curating an internationally diverse line-up, as ratings progressed, more Israeli films were in the lead, yet there was no highly rated American film. Should diversity be sacrificed for quality to eliminate a fine Israeli film in favor of a “good enough” film from another country?  

No! JFF2020 wanted the best films only; therefore, this year, out of 8 films, five are Israeli, two are German and one is Argentine.

Then there was the complication when two or more films had similar themes. It was easy to toss out several concentration camp stories, since the group unanimously agreed it didn’t want to go in that graphic a direction. 

Nevertheless, in two cases, pairs of good films had similar themes, for example, children on their own escaping the Nazis. How to choose? Should more credit be given to the production value or the country? Which raises more discussion? Which is the better film?

Ultimately, every decision ended with “which is the better film?” JFF2020 wanted the best films only. There are no films about children fleeing from Nazis this year, since well – there were better and higher rated films to choose from. But you will come across another similarly themed pair, because, JFF2020 wanted its audience to experience both highly rated films.

The program also includes a hilarious dark comedy about some scoundrels Maktub, and Tel Aviv On Fire, a satire that deftly handles the Arab difficulty of simply commuting to work on the set of a Palestinian soap opera shot in Israel.

In the end, an unidentified inside source stated to witnesses who can confirm, this year’s Ajijic Jewish Film Festival was decided on two main criteria – excellent films, Jewish films.