Strengthening a cultural foundation: Wilmington Jewish Film Festival launches virtually Saturday

Lainie Kazan (left) is back with the people from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to bring audiences “Tango Shalom,” screening May 11 at 7 p.m. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Convivencia Forever Films)

WILMINGTON — Four months ago, the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival had to make a decision in launching its seventh-year event: cancel or go virtual. With Covid mandates keeping folks away from larger gatherings and theaters being shuttered, it seemed best option to allow a streaming option rather than miss another year of the festival. Tomorrow, the 2021 event gets underway and will show 11 films the public can purchase to stream through May 9. 

Co-chair Mimi Kessler said in January the seven-person committee did a test-run to help inform this year’s operational logistics. They decided to take a few leftover films from 2020 and allow folks to stream them for free to gauge interest.

“We did some advertising through our email contact list, 900 or so, to let our followers know we were going to be able to show the films virtually,” Kessler said. “So it was kind of a trial for us to see how it was going to run when we realized we weren’t going to mount an in-person festival this year.”


The annual festival usually takes place at local theaters in town — mostly at Thalian Hall, but it’s also hosted screenings at The Pointe. It welcomes 300 or so people nightly over two weeks, and in recent years, has hosted dinners, as well as desserts and coffee to go with the screenings. Though 2021 will have to forego those offerings, the quality of movies will stay true to the festival’s mission.

“Basically, it’s to provide entertainment that will create an ongoing vehicle for the Wilmington Jewish community to strengthen its cultural foundation,” Kessler said. “But it’s also to offer not just Jewish films for Jewish people, but films that would share our heritage with the general public.”

After each festival screening, the committee asks audiences to fill out a survey that rates the movies and experience. Kessler said around one-third are non-Jewish attendees.

“They’re coming in to see some good films they wouldn’t see elsewhere,” she said.

For 2021, the committee selected a mixture of seven features and four shorts — documentaries, dramas and comedies. Kessler said finding a good comedy “that’s not so schmaltzy” always proves one of the most enjoyable challenges. This year the committee chose “Tango Shalom,” which was directed and produced by the same people who did “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It stars Lainie Kazan, who played Maria Portokalos in “Greek Wedding,” and Karina Smirnoff from “Dancing With the Stars.”

The story follows an Orthodox Jew who loves to dance — but the problem is, he can’t touch another woman because of his religion. Still, in order to save his Hebrew school from going bankrupt, he enters a televised Tango contest.

“It’s kind of an oddball film, but it is funny,” Kessler said. “Black-hat Orthodox Jews are very orthodox — like, not only will they not touch another woman, they can’t look them in the eyes.”

The documentary “Breaking Bread” ends the festival on a light-hearted note — something Kessler said the committee thought was needed after enduring such a heavy pandemic year. Also, Kessler said teh doc won “the Oscar of Europe.” It follows a food competition and festival held in Haifa, Israel, pairing up chefs from both sides of the fence, Palestine and Israel, into teams to create their favorite recipes. 

“It’s kind of an education and it’s upbeat, and there’s some really good music,” Kessler explained. “We’re closing with that because it’s so politically enlightening. Everybody thinks that Jews and Arabs can’t get along.”

Annually, Kessler and her co-chair Barry Salwen search for Holocaust-related films that go beyond what most people are used to: traumatic exposés of Auschwitz. The curators try to be mindful of content that explores nuanced stories of the genocide, even ones that showcase redemption and hope. 

An animated short, “The Tattooed Torah,” tells the story of the Holocaust through a found Torah in Czechoslovakia. Ed Asner narrates it with a focus toward resilience.

“The Crossing” is about four children fleeing the Norwegian resistance in World War II. Their journey has them crossing the border into Sweden to reunite with their parents.

A heart-jerker about a boy and his dog will be seen in “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog.” A boy’s German Shepherd is taken away from him by Nazis when the Nuremberg Laws are enacted in World War II Berlin. The two best friends are reunited unexpectedly when the young boy ends up at a concentration camp where the dog is on watch — together, they try to escape.

During normal years, the festival hosts a high-school outreach program, which includes covering costs to bus in students to screenings of one of the Holocaust films. “I think it’s done during their sophomore year when they study the Holocaust in history class,” Kessler said. The festival even pays for substitute teachers. “It’s part of the mission to share into the community and educate people,” she said.

The festival looks to continue screening “The Crossing” this fall for students. Kessler said they plan to book it at the 1,500-seat Wilson Center in order to do one simultaneous screening for students in school and others who are homeschooled.

The festival may host a few more pop-ups ahead of next year’s main springtime event. Last spring, the team hosted Fiddlerfest, a two-day event that offered “The Fiddle” and “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” as a celebration of the iconic Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” The festival also does a summer series featuring three films; however, Kessler said as of now she’s unsure if they’ll host more screenings this summer. 

The Wilmington Jewish Film Festival operates off grants from the City of Wilmington, Arts Friendly, and the N.C. Arts Council. Tickets from the festival, as well as ads in their annual program and donor support, keep it funded.

“We pay for every film,” Kessler said. “I have to negotiate every one — and for some reason, in this industry, they ask more for Jewish films.”

When the festival is held in-person, the committee also pays to rent out space to screen the movies, the projectionist to run them, and for security. Kessler said they started paying for security over the last few years “since things have started going south, you know, with synagogues being bombed. I don’t think it’s going to happen here in Wilmington, but you never know.”

Some of those expenses are spared for 2021. The main cost has come with using Elevent — a screening platform that’s become popular for festivals during Covid. “They help us sell tickets online,” Kessler said. “We researched and knew Cucalorus used them.” 

As to whether the festival will move forward as a hybrid and continue to include virtual screenings next year hasn’t been decided. Kessler said they definitely will be getting back to in-person screenings.

“I still think there’s something very exciting about seeing a film on a big screen — no matter how big your TV is,” she said. 

Tickets for the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival are $10 per movie or $50 for all screenings. The films must be streamed within 72 hours of purchase and are available May 4, 8, 11, 15, 18 and 22; details about each can be found on the film festival’s website.


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