Jewish & Israeli Film Festival brings the world to Cincinnati

One of the few weaknesses in Cincinnati’s arts scene has been the inability to build a sustaining film festival with artistic credibility, comfortable venues, plentiful sponsorship, public support and awareness and financial resources. Just like so many other major cities have.
There’s at least one that’s close to achieving those milestones, and its 2016 edition begins on Saturday, Feb. 6.
It’s the Mayerson JCC Jewish & Israeli Film Festival, and for the second year in a row it’s increased its offerings: 12 new international films will play over the course of three weeks rather than last year’s 10 titles (which were an increase from eight movies in 2014).
“It’s our chance to program not just within our walls but for the entire community,” says Betsy Singer-Lefton, cultural arts manager of Mayerson Jewish Community Center in Amberley Village. “You don’t have to be a JCC member, you don’t have to be Jewish. You just have to have an interest in film.”
While the Mayerson JCC is the festival’s parent organization, films mostly are screened at legitimate movie theaters — the Kenwood, Esquire and Cinemark Oakley Station — along with the opening night event at The Carnegie in Covington.
While the films all have some Jewish subject matter and many are Israeli productions, their artistic quality is a paramount concern to the 13-person all-volunteer Film Festival Committee.
“It was really rough when I first started on the committee,” says Mark Mayer, its chair, who got involved in 2004 when the festival was a smaller event run by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. He is a Realtor by trade.
“Israeli film back then, even though there were some good films, was mediocre at best,” he says. “But the films coming out of Israel have just changed dramatically. We now get to a point where there are too many to choose from because the film industry has grown so wonderfully.”
Another reason for the growth, Mayer says, has been the way the organizers have responded to filmgoer feedback. For instance, after the the Mayerson JCC opened in 2010 and assumed responsibility for the festival, screenings were moved to its large Amberley Room there. Even though that could hold more than 400 people, there were problems.
“It wasn’t stadium seating and the seating wasn’t comfortable, so we ultimately decided we had to leave,” Mayer says. “There were too many complaints about the seats.”
Fortunately, there’s a new generation of better-quality East Side cineplexes with stadium seats that the festival can rent.
Because of that growing confidence in the quality of the offerings, the festival has been attracting an ever-larger audience. There were 2,321 tickets sold overall last year. And there have already been 1,250 sold this year a week before the event has even started — one reason is that people have learned to buy early to avoid sell-outs.
“We had our first sell-out 14 days after we opened ticket sales,” Singer-Lefton says. “We went back to the Kenwood to ask to increase the auditorium size, so now we’re unsold-out, but still that’s a good problem to have.”
That film is the French comedy Serial [Bad] Weddings, about parents angered because their daughters keep marrying outside their religion. It screens Feb. 11.
“The idea of having more films, more screenings, is to accommodate demand,” she says. “The typical person isn’t used to purchasing a movie ticket in advance, so we realize it’s quite an honor to have people giving us four weeks notice of what movie they’ll see.”
That’s all the more impressive because most of the screenings occur Monday through Thursday nights. The festival doesn’t program on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons in deference to Jews who observe the Sabbath, though it’s also difficult to rent commercial theaters on weekend nights.
The opening night screening at The Carnegie is the relatively high-profile Remember, a new Holocaust-related psychological thriller from acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan that features Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris. Remember has had a very limited general release; a satellite-delivered TV service offered it as a VOD exclusive for one month.
Leonard Maltin 
The closing night event on Feb. 25 isn’t a film at all but rather an appearance at the JCC by eminent national film critic Leonard Maltin, who will talk about film festivals in general as well as the role of Jewish Americans in creating the Hollywood film industry. He’ll have autographed books for sale.
Having the nonprofit Mayerson JCC — a modern version of the traditional Jewish community center — behind the festival has given it resources to grow. It doesn’t have to create its own organizational infrastructure or independent paid staff.
Both Singer-Lefton and Mayer say the festival is self-sufficient, generating enough revenue from ticket sales and increased sponsorship to meet expenses and then some.
But why would the JCC, which has other services and priorities besides cultural activities, be so willing to host a community-wide film festival in the first place?
“Part of Jewish culture is definitely a storytelling element, from the ancient texts right up to today,” Singer-Lefton says. “It’s a narrative culture. Visual storytelling follows suit.”
She also explains that the films don’t have to avoid any political controversy about Israel so they can be thought-provoking and even daring, which discerning film buffs like.
As an example, she points to this year’s Israeli documentary Oriented, about three gay Palestinian men living in Tel Aviv. It screens Feb. 24 at the Esquire.
“On one hand, they’re strongly Palestinian and not so supportive of the Israeli state,” she says. “But they also are aware that a Palestinian state might not be so accepting of their lifestyle. We’re OK talking about that. Film is a safe place to do that. People like being challenged and entertained at the same time. My favorite thing is when people walk out of theater with a little something on their mind.
“Last year, we found a lot of filmmakers really had the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on their mind, and we had films from both perspectives. You have to remember Israelis disagree on politics like Americans do, and there’s more than one view. The only parameter we have on subject matter is to offer a wide range of topics.”
As this festival readies to open, another specialized Cincinnati film festival is seeking wider community support. The ReelAbilities Film Festival, operated by Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD), announced last week that its second edition will occur March 9-12, 2017. The first was in 2015.
Hannah Eldridge 
It will be condensed in format. Rather than presenting 25 films over eight days in multiple locations, as was done last year, it will offer films for just four days in one location, the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel. Regular meeting rooms at the Hyatt will be temporarily converted to theaters with projectors, sound systems, screens and stadium seating.
“Our goal is for the art to drive the film selection,” says Hannah Eldridge, development and external relations manager for LADD, via email. “The schedule allows for about 30 film screenings. If we have 30 great films, we’ll show 30. If we have 15 great films, we’ll show 15 and potentially show them more than once.”
LADD first partnered with Visionaries + Voices in 2013 to co-present a Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. LADD took over the ReelAbilities national program in 2014, overseeing festivals in 15 cities nationwide from its Cincinnati offices.
Meanwhile, what might be next for the Jewish & Israeli Film Festival if it continues to do well? Mayer has a dream as sell-outs at rented theaters increase: Maybe there could be the creation of a legitimate theater at the Mayerson JCC.
Mayerson JCC in Amberley Village 
“I would be thrilled with that,” he says. “If they saw their way clear to adding a stadium-seating theater there, that would be wonderful. We could move the festival back to the center again.”
Besides the films and events already mentioned, here are thumbnail sketches of the others in the Jewish & Israeli Film Festival:
Look At Us Now Mother! at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at Cinemark Oakley Station: A U.S. documentary by Gayle Kirschenbaum about her dysfunctional yet loving relationship world.
Victor “Young” Perez at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at Cinemark Oakley Station: A French drama based on the true story of Jewish Tunisian boxing champion forced to box for the amusement of Nazi guards at Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at Kenwood Theatre: This U.S. documentary follows Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov on a foodie journey through Israel.
Les Heritiers (Once in a Lifetime) at 3 p.m. Feb. 14 at Kenwood Theatre: A French drama about the struggles of a history teacher to get her students to care about the Holocaust.
Rock in the Red Zone at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at Kenwood Theatre: American documentary filmmaker Laura Bialis travels to Sderot, an Israeli city repeatedly shelled by rockets fired by Gaza Strip Palestinians, to see how the community has become the center of a literally “underground” rock culture.
Fire Birds at 1 p.m. Feb. 17 at JCC and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at Kenwood Theatre: An Israeli dark comedy about the investigation of a murder of an elderly man believed to have been a Holocaust survivor.
Is That You? at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at Cinemark Oakley Station: A drama about a recently fired Israeli man who travels to the U.S. in search of a long-lost love. Complications ensue.
Operation Sunflower at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at Kenwood Theatre: A drama about the scientists who worked on Israel’s secret nuclear program and the government figures who supervised them.
Hill Start at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at Cinemark Oakley Station: A lighthearted Israeli comedy about a wealthy Jerusalem family coping with unexpected problems and unusual characters in the aftermath of a serious car accident.
Watch trailers and buy advance tickets here.
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Read more articles by Steve Rosen.

Steve Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who serves as CityBeat's Contributing Visual Arts Editor and is a frequent contributor to The Enquirer. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Variety,, Western Art & Architecture, Paste and other publications and websites.