Silence was a topic of passionate discussion at the Maine Jewish Film Festival’s (MJFF) screening in Mills Hall this past Monday. The festival is celebrating its 25th year this week with the motto “Great Films Unite Us,” proven true by a full room of people gathered to watch “The Art of Silence” and “The Peacock That Passed Over.”
The Cinema Studies Program at the College partnered with MJFF to bring these films to Brunswick and to make the screenings available at no cost to students and area residents. The screening was hosted in Mills Hall’s Room 129, affectionately called the “Jewel Box.”
“I live to bring people into the movie theater. That’s what I do,” Professor of Cinema Studies and Director of the Cinema Studies Program Tricia Welsch said. “I like the festival’s slogan: ‘Great Films Unite Us.’ I think that there’s always been something to talk about with their films, and we’ve always had interesting conversations.”
Welsch first partnered with MJFF in 2020, when they planned a festival for all of campus to experience. After the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, they moved the partnership online to Zoom. Hundreds of students signed up to participate in virtual discussions and screenings of films selected by the nonprofit.
Staff across campus, from the Department of Religion to employees of the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, have a say in which movies are shown. Bowdoin faculty and staff are also slated to host discussions after each on-campus screening, including Professor of Theater and Dance Davis Robinson, who hosted a discussion after Monday’s screening.
Robinson himself has been a street performer, musician and juggler in addition to working at various renaissance fairs. His experience with professional mime helped him in the discussion of the film “The Art of Silence,” which centers around the renowned French pantomime artist Marcel Marceau.
“Marcel was a phenomenon. He was an amazing performer and he toured the world,” Robinson said. “What was amazing was that his father was killed in Auschwitz, and he still toured Germany, sometimes shaking hands with people not knowing, ‘Was this the person that helped execute my father?’”
Robinson referenced the universality of mime as an art form demonstrated in the film and how powerful that was to watch. But to him, mime is not what it used to be, nor can it be replaced by a more modern art form.
“[Marceau] was able to cross borders, able to believe there’s a universal language out there that all people are understanding,” Robinson said. “And that’s what he focused on [in his miming]. Is there a form that can do that these days? No.”
During the discussion that followed “The Art of Silence,” attendees asked about Marceau’s role during the Resistance in World War II, to which Robinson expanded his consideration of pantomime as a universal art form.
During the war, Marceau used his talent for mime to take Jewish children into Switzerland to escape Nazi control. His mime became a tool to keep the children comfortable while also keeping them quiet.
Robinson and Welsch both underscored the importance of providing a platform for independent movies as MJFF does, given the value in new and novel media.
“Any chance you get to see these films that don’t get commercial releases, I think it’s really great,” Robinson said. “It feels really curated just for you.”
Welsch expressed the importance of exposing students to new films that may not receive critical acclaim.
“I teach film history. I teach a lot of familiar films. They may be new to my students, and they usually are. Any film from film history is probably going to be worthwhile or a teacher will make it worthwhile,” she said. “What we don’t know with the film festival is what we’re getting—there’s a very real way in which it’s live.”
Monday’s showing was the second of MJFF’s screenings at Bowdoin after “I Am Not” was shown last Sunday night. The group plans to hold two more screenings in the Jewel Box: “Valeria is Getting Married” is scheduled to screen tonight and “March ’68” will be shown tomorrow. Both films will screen at 7 p.m., and Brunswick residents and college students alike are encouraged to attend.
“I think a film-going culture—a sense of community around a shared artistic experience—is as good as it gets,” Welsch said. “That’s what I live for.”
John Schubert contributed to this report.