As a cultural event, the Miami Jewish Film Festival was a late bloomer.
Until its late teens, the annual week-long celebration of contemporary Jewish cinema was a low-profile affair that showed a handful of films and drew a devoted but small crowd.
But ever since festival executive director Igor Shteyrenberg took over the reins of the event for its 17th edition, its audience — and impact — underwent a growth spurt.
The 20th anniversary of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, which runs Jan. 12-26 at various venues around the city, boasts 65 films from 20 countries. Presented by the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, which is a subsidiary of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the event now draws an audience of more than 25,000, making it the third largest Jewish film festival in the world, after Atlanta and San Francisco.
“This used to be a truly niche festival, no different than the other 200 Jewish film festivals in the U.S. that celebrate the same films and cycle them through the festival circuit,” Shteyrenberg, 32, says. “I wanted to raise the bar and set a certain kind of industry standard — showcase the work of some of the world’s most extraordinary filmmakers. And the city has proven there’s a market for them after our festival.”
Catching the attention of the industry is a critical element to the growth of any film festival, and Shteyrenberg is doing just that. Making its world premiere at this year’s event is “1945,” Hungarian director Ferenc Török’s drama, shot in black-and-white, set in a small village whose inhabitants are forced to confront the consequences of their actions during World War II. Török will attend the festival screenings on Jan. 19 and Jan. 23 and participate in a Q&A with the audience.
The film’s inclusion into this year’s slate drew the attention of Neil Friedman, founder and president of Menemsha Films, who has acquired U.S. distribution right and will release the movie theatrically in late 2017 or early 2018.
“I knew nothing about ‘1945’ until I saw it on Igor’s schedule for this year,” Friedman says. “I am very close to every Jewish film festival in North America, and part of my job is to look at everyone’s slate and try to find gems. Igor has been a discoverer of great new films, which is so important to what we do. He has elevated this festival to the upper echelon of Jewish film festivals. He has a greater breadth of movies, a broader selection and more screenings.”
Among the other movies screening at this year’s event:
▪ “Scarred Hearts,” director Radu Jude’s drama, which won the Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, about a young man with tuberculosis confined to a sanatorium who falls in love with a former patient in 1937;
▪ “Harmonia,” Israeli director Ori Sivan’s portrait of the unconventional marriage between an orchestra conductor and his harpist wife;
▪ “Cloudy Sunday,” the first-ever Greek film to delve into that country’s persecution of Jews during World War II;
▪ “Restoring Tomorrow,” a documentary about the history of Los Angeles’ iconic Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the unlikely efforts to raise $150 million to restore the building to its original glory;
▪ “AKA Nadia,” director Tova Ascher’s blend of romantic drama and political thriller, about a choreographer living in Jerusalem whose secret past resurfaces and upends her life;
▪ “Paradise,” Russia’s official entry to the Academy Awards, the story of three people — a French resistance fighter, a French collaborator and an SS officer — whose lives intertwine during World War II, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky (“Runaway Train”);
▪ “S Is for Stanley,” a portrait of the great Stanley Kubrick as told by his long-time personal assistant and chauffeur.
In celebration of its 20th birthday, the festival is incorporating several live musical and dance performances to accompany certain films. The modern dance troupe Dance Now! Miami will perform a tribute to renowned choreographer Ohad Naharin before the screening of “Mr. Gaga,” a documentary about his work and legacy. The Second Avenue Jewish Chorale will sing century-old Jewish music to introduce “Night Song,” about a Montreal chorus attempting to perform a lost piece of Jewish music.
The Amernet String Quartet Ensemble-In-Residence at FIU will perform classical compositions by Jewish artists whose work was suppressed by the Third Reich preceding “Exit: Music,” a documentary about five composers whose music almost disappeared after World War II. The HaZamir International Jewish High School Choir will take the stage on closing night before the screening of “Past Life,” the story of two sisters in 1977 exploring their father’s former life in Poland, from celebrated director Avi Nesher.
Growing the audience
“Igor has taken this festival from nothing to an event that draws more than 25,000 people,” says Gary Yarus, a longtime Miami financial advisor who served as the Miami Jewish Film Festival chair for the first time this year. “I love his energy and vibrance and perspective, and I want to help integrate that into the community. Adding musical and dance performances is just one way to draw more people in. We want the festival to grow steadily, add more venues, continue to attract members of Miami’s diverse Jewish communities and also attract a younger demographic.”
In addition to the existing Jewish Film Society, which has an existing base of 350 people, the festival has a new membership called the Next Wave, which is free and open to anyone ages 21-35. Members will get regular invitations to special screenings of art fare and conversations with filmmakers along with previews of popular movies such as “La La Land,” “Silence,” “Jackie” and “Hacksaw Ridge.”
“Our outreach efforts to connect with the millennial audience is essential to our continued growth and longetivity as we look to our third decade,” Shteyrenberg says. “The response we’ve received has been overwhelmingly encouraging. It’s almost as if they’ve been yearning to connect with their Jewish identity. We try to have encore presentations of some of the movies we show at the festival throughout these year-round events.
“But for a lot of the films we premiere at the festival, you will never be able to experience them again. That’s the joy and sadness of a film festival. The joy is that you get to discover these stories. The sadness is that’s the only time you’ll be able to experience them.”
The 20th Miami Jewish Film Festival
When: Jan. 12-26.
Where: Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, Coral Gables Art Cinema, Miami Beach JCC, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Miami Shores, Regal Cinemas South Beach, Temple Beth Am, Temple Beth Sholom.
Tickets: $13 single screenings; festival passes $250.
Info: 305-573-7304 or www.miamijewishfilmfestival.org