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“Great movies unite us”: Maine Jewish Film Festival returns with virtual format

November 13, 2020

With hopes to unite the Bowdoin community through film, the Cinema Studies Program has partnered with the Maine Jewish Film Festival (MJFF), a Portland-based nonprofit, to bring the Festival’s virtual lineup to the screens of students, staff and faculty at no cost.

The Festival, which runs from November 7 through November 22 and is accessible through the MJFF website, consists of 15 feature-length films and documentaries, one screened each day of the Festival, that aim to exhibit Jewish experiences from around the world for a Maine audience. The Festival’s extensive lineup ranges from notable dramas such as “The Tobacconist” and “Abe” to thought-provoking documentaries “Ms. G” and “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”

The Bowdoin-MJFF partnership was the brainchild of Barbara Merson, executive director of the MJFF, and Tricia Welsch, professor of cinema studies and director of the cinema studies program. Originally the MJFF was planned for late March 2020, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced Merson and Welsch to rethink and rework the program.

Welsch hopes that students, faculty and staff, 110 of whom have already signed up to view at least one film, will leave the Festival with a new appreciation for cinema that may be unfamiliar to them. She believes that the Festival will give moviegoers the chance to expand their worldview and allow them to personally connect with the Jewish experience.

“Taking a step towards the unknown is really worth it,” Welsch said in a phone interview with the Orient. “It’s so rewarding and pleasurable.”

Although the Festival only began last Saturday, the Bowdoin community’s response to the Festival has been overwhelmingly positive. Students in particular are excited to connect with movies and an artistic community that they may have not encountered otherwise.

“I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to not only be able to see these films for free, but also to have been exposed to the Maine Jewish Film Festival in the first place,” Elizabeth Cayenne-McCall ’24 said in an email to the Orient. “I never would have known about it otherwise.”

“The online program, time windows and account system have worked seamlessly and are very user-friendly,” Caroline Poole ’22 added in an email to the Orient. “I’ve loved the chance to support Jewish filmmakers from home and sincerely hope that Bowdoin continues this partnership moving forward.”

Unique to this year, the Festival will feature a free-to-all screening of the 2004 film “Every Mother’s Son,” which touches upon themes of racial justice and inequity.

“One of the sad things is that even though it’s an older film, it’s still relevant,” Merson said in a phone interview with the Orient. “We’re also doing a discussion with that film and a number of the other films so that people have time to ask questions and, if not talk directly to each other, feel that they’re in contact with other Festival-goers.”

The virtual event will include several post-screening discussions, including a panel on the film “#Female Pleasure.” The panel will be led by Rachel Reinke, associate director of the Sexuality, Women and Gender (SWAG) Center. The MJFF hopes that these discussions will foster meaningful conversations and create a larger sense of community in a virtual space.

The films are selected by a 15- to 16-person committee that screens nearly 100 films in any given year. Merson believes that the composition of the committee plays a large role in the diversity of offerings at this year’s festival.

“We try to make the screening committee as diverse as possible to reflect our audience,” Merson said. “We’re trying to get a variety of films and a variety of perspectives on things that we feel will be of interest to a Maine audience.”

While the films all center around Judaism, student attendees have noted the variety in topic and tone among the stories.

“The first and only film I’ve seen so far for this festival is Eytan Fox’s ‘Sublet,’ a movie notable for having the most sexual tension between sock puppets I’ve ever seen,” said Liam Juskevice ’21 in an email statement to the Orient. “Having never been to Israel, it was interesting to follow along with the main character as he tries to figure out the character of the ‘real Tel Aviv.’”

Welsch encourages anyone from the Bowdoin community to attend, even if they have never explored Jewish cinema.

“The best thing you’ve ever watched is often a surprise,” said Welsch. “You don’t see it coming.”


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