Reeling - Rene Rodriguez

Miami Jewish Film Festival gets a fresh start

Igor Shteyrenberg, director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
Igor Shteyrenberg, director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

Ask Igor Shteyrenberg to rattle off three of his favorite movies without thinking about it and he answers the question his way.

“I tend not to think about specific movies,” he says. “I think of directors instead: Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick.”

For the next several minutes, Shteyrenberg, director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, which runs Thursday through Jan. 29, gets lost in conversation about Kubrick.

“There is not a film of Kubrick’s that I don’t love,” he begins. “He had a way of encapsulating color and subject and framing and emotions in his movies like no other filmmaker. One day I might pick 2001: A Space Odyssey as my favorite. The next day I might pick another one. If I had his movies as screen savers on my computer, I would never get any work done.”

Fortunately, no such screen saver exists. And ever since taking the reins of the festival in the summer of 2013, Shteyrenberg, an amiable, gentle fellow who speaks at a rapid rat-tat-tat speed, hasn’t stopped working. Last year’s edition began the festival’s growth, with 30 films at five venues over 10 days.

This year, the event is even bigger. Befitting its 18th anniversary, this year’s festival has grown up in a major way, boasting 74 films (including 11 North American premieres) screened over 13 days in 9 venues around Miami. Eight screenings are already sold out, a benefit of growing the festival’s mailing list from 1,200 to more than 16,000 and a 30 percent boost in membership in the Miami Jewish Film Society.

“The year before I started, the festival’s attendance was around 4,000,” Shteyrenberg says. “In 2014, my first year as director, we drew 11,000 people. In terms of box office, we’ve already matched what we grossed in total last year, and the festival hasn’t even started. My main initiative from the start has been to make this festival accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike. Otherwise I’m just preaching to the choir. How are we going to inspire tolerance and bridge cultural divides? We have to bring different cultures together and inspire conversations. We’re not just here to entertain. ... We’re also here to educate and bring people together for conversation. But we believe in the quality of our films. ... Every film in our program is valuable and will leave an impression. They will stay with you.”

Shteyrenberg put the deep, broad program together after attending the Toronto and South by Southwest festivals and sifting through an estimated 600 films over the course of a year.

“The festival has a diverse selection of films that mirrors the diverse aspects of our community,” says Mark Baranek, director of congregational engagement at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, where several films will be screened. “Igor is a young person with such a good eye for films of various interests that he’s already brought the festival to a new level. It’s a feather in our cap to be able to participate and show some movies here.”

Shteyrenberg, 30, was born to Russian Jewish parents in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. “It’s a little town with a long history of being usurped by other countries,” he says. “It’s very diverse culturally — part of the Eastern European diaspora — which is part of the reason why I have a sense of appreciation for all kinds of films.”

When he was 5, he moved to Miami with his family and was raised largely by his grandparents while his working-class mother and father made a living. After high school, Shteyrenberg attended the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California, where he studied under film critic Leonard Maltin and had a revelatory, life-changing moment after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 classic Vivre sa vie.

“I always had a fascination with the visual arts, even in my youth,” he says. “But it was in my freshman year in college, while watching that movie, that I had an immediate recognition of film as an art form and all its possibilities to reflect and redefine our world.”

Upon graduation, Shteyrenberg returned home to Miami, where he served a stint at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, steeping himself in marketing, programming and distribution, then moved over to the Miami International Film Festival to serve as assistant to festival director Jaie Laplante. It was there, he says, that he learned everything he knows about running a film festival.

When Ellen Wedner, who had served as festival director for 10 years, left her post and moved to West Palm Beach in 2013, Shteyrenberg jumped at the chance to fill her seat.

“My rise has been Napoleonic,” Shteyrenberg says, laughing. “They were looking for a fresh start and wanted to draw younger audiences. I was looking for a challenge. I felt like this was something I had worked toward for many years, and I wanted to seize it. That’s not to say I didn’t feel trepidation and fear — I could have been in way over my head — but I wanted to know what I could accomplish with an organization I would be running myself.”

“I think Igor’s taste is impeccable,” says Mark Kravitz, chairman of the film festival and board member of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education. “He understands which movies are going to connect with audiences. He’s extremely bright, which is why we’re all so comfortable letting him do his thing. You can have a brilliant young doctor; why not have a brilliant young festival director?”

Shteyrenberg says his primary mission was to “revitalize and energize the brand” and make the community take notice of the festival. That meant forming partnerships with local art house cinemas and starting a year-round program offering screenings and Q&As to the public as well as the members of the Jewish Film Society. Offerings have included a preview of Barry Levinson’s new film The Humbling, starring Al Pacino, which was screened Thursday night at the Cosford Cinema, or last year’s 40th anniversary celebration of Young Frankenstein at the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in.

“We needed to get our name out there with as many events as possible,” he says. “I wanted to put the festival into turbo mode. We’ve had 30 screenings as of today, and we also partnered with [the Emmy award-winning PBS series] Independent Lens to hold free screenings of socially conscious documentaries. We’ve been able to generate conversations on topics people — Jewish and non-Jewish — otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to discuss. We’re here to foster dialogue, to provoke thought through film. As a result, attendance has been very robust and we’ve been fortunate to grow a following.”

Those dialogues are an integral part of Shteyrenberg’s vision for the festival. But the cinephile side of him also wants the event to offer audiences unique opportunities.

“I don’t want to be contained by predictability,” he says. “This year we’re doing an evening [on Jan. 27] with Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon. Morrison is an iconic experimental filmmaker. I saw his movies for the first time in college and I think my heart skipped two beats. I couldn’t take a breath afterwards. I had never seen anything like it. To be able to connect with him and bring him to Miami to celebrate his work … who in their right mind would think of a Jewish film festival bringing in an experimental filmmaker? Those are the kinds of things we have to do.”

Jewish community leaders hope the combination of entertainment, education and social relevance will have positive repercussions long after the end credits roll on this year’s festival.

“Any event that is open to the community and shares the ideals and traits of any religious or cultural group has positive results,” says Rabbi Solomon Schiff, past chairman of the Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “Through these movies, people can have a taste of what it’s like to be a part of our particular group. They’re able to see what the thoughts and inspiration of Judaism are. Instead of us being isolated in our own group, commiserating with others of our same religion, we are able to open the conversation across barriers. That allows the entire community to become enriched.”

For Shteyrenberg, whose staff consists of himself and two part-time employees, the challenge is for the festival to satisfy audiences on both a cultural and artistic level — something this year’s lineup promises to do.

“It’s a tightrope we have to walk,” he says. “We have to deliver socially conscious films, but at the same time you want to be pushing the cinematic edge. That’s what everyone is always looking for: a new film that’s going to steal your breath. I’m immensely proud of the movies we’re showing this year. We’re the fastest-growing festival in Florida right now. Miami’s community of volunteers and passionate film lovers have come out to support us. They believe in this festival and they’re here for us. And we’re not going to let them down. That’s the only way we’ll experience success.”

If you go

The 18th Miami Jewish Film Festival runs Jan. 15-29 at various venues around Miami, including O Cinema, Regal South Beach 18, Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema, Blue Starlite Drive-in and the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.miamijewishfilmfestival.com or call 305-573-7304.

Highlight reel

Here’s a sneak peek at some of the films screening at the 2015 Miami Jewish Film Festival:

The Go-Go Boys: This affectionate documentary portrait of Israeli cousins Menahem Golan (who died last year) and Yoram Globus, best known for financing and distributing hundreds of A and Z-grade films in the 1980s via their company Cannon Films, is both revelatory and nostalgic.

Magic Men: A Greek man and his estranged Hasidic rapper son embark on a road trip filled with absurd, comical encounters.

Radical Evil: Director Stefan Ruzowitzky, whose 2007 Holocaust drama ‘The Counterfeiters’ won the Foreign Language Film Oscar, returns with this documentary that explores how ordinary Germans were capable of committing mass murder during World War II.

Silicon Wadi: This documentary following four computer-tech start-ups over two years in the silicon hotbed of Tel Aviv is making its world premiere at the festival.

Another World: Israel’s first sci-fi thriller centers on a handful of survivors in a post-apocalyptic future decimated by biological warfare.

In Hiding: This taut thriller documents the romantic relationship that develops between a young Polish woman and the Jewish refugee her father is hiding in their home.

Closer to the Moon: Vera Farmiga and Mark Strong co-star in this fact-based tale about a group of former World War II Jewish Resistance members who pose as filmmakers in order to pull off a heist.

Night Will Fall: The legendary “lost” documentary about the 1945 liberation of Nazi concentration camps, which was worked on by Alfred Hitchcock and other directors, is completed and revisited in this new film.

Zero Motivation: A runaway box office hit in Israel, this comedy-drama focuses on a troop of female Israeli soldiers based at a remote desert location counting the days until they can resume their civilian lives.

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