Terry Paule wanted her weekends to include Jewish-infused events, which she was hard pressed to find when she moved to Orange County in 2000.
Instead of grousing, she started researching. Hooked on cinema while living in Hong Kong, where film provided a medium to understand foreign culture and stay current with her own, Paule started attending Jewish film festivals around the country.
The result is the Pacific Jewish Film Festival, which opens Feb. 17 for a weeklong run of nine films in two locations. It is the inaugural effort of a cross-community group of volunteer film buffs led by Paule, who aim to enliven the county's Jewish culture.
Supported by the Jewish Community Center, Federation and Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School, the festival offers a collage of documentaries and features, comedy and drama, foreign and new releases unlikely to gain widespread U.S. distribution.
"We're committed to bringing things they won't see elsewhere," said Paule, a Laguna Niguel judge.
The subjects range from "Strange Fruit," the impact of the controversial Billie Holiday classic song about lynching, to "Inside Out/Mandela and the Jews," a comedy about Christians and Jews in South Africa. The themes include Holocaust resistance, political consciousness, infertility, Yiddish theater and a contemporary love story. Post-film talks are also scheduled.
The festival will close Feb. 23 with "Promises," a documentary nominee for an Academy Award last year, which looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lives of seven Jerusalem children.
The most controversial,"Trembling Before G-d," a movie about homosexuals and observant Jews, is on the lineup of the county's oldest Jewish film venue, organized by Irvine's University Synagogue. University and Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom, which have both previously held single-day film screenings intermittently over several months, plan to continue their own series independently.
"Movies have replaced a lot of cultural events," said Paule, citing, for example, the decline of Yiddish theater. "That's why they're so popular."
New Jewish film fests are sprouting every year, and now number 50, said Dana Schneider, a spokeswoman for New York's National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which is holding its third conference for fest organizers.
The proliferation of venues reflects an explosion of available films that span storytelling in the Jewish Diaspora. The foundation has made its own contribution by green-lighting 38 documentaries since 1996, underwritten by a grant from Stephen Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation.
The reel bounty makes easy the task of fest curators, who attempt to select a lineup that caters to multiple constituencies, such as the Pacific festival's inclusion of both Israeli and South African films. Organizers hope to draw attendance by the local émigré population.
"Plenty of communities smaller than Orange County are putting on festivals," said Paule, who declined to estimate a projected turnout. While tickets costs $10 each, the intent is not to raise money for an organization or clear a profit, she said.
Working on a limited budget, festival organizers expect underwriters will help them recoup most costs for procuring films. Full-length 35-mm features, which will be screened at Irvine's Edwards Park Place 10, cost $1,000. Video or DVD formats, which are to be shown at the high school theater at Tarbut, are $500.
"I haven't seen a movie since 'Die Hard II,'" said Karen Jaffe, part of the festival organizing committee. "My motivation is to build community."
Beth Sholom's series, in its third year, includes "A Call to Remember," about a Holocaust survivor, on Feb. 2, and "Leon the Pig Farmer," an irreverent look at cultural identity, on March 30. Tickets are $10 each and both showings are at 6 p.m. at the synagogue.
The lineup at University's Orange County Jewish Film Festival, in its 13th year, includes "Yana's Friends," a comedy, March 23; "Left Luggage," a Holocaust survivor's tale, April 13, and "Trembling Before G-d," May 18.
"It deals with a subject that's kept under wraps in the Jewish community," said Robert M. Klein, a retired Newport Beach dentist, who helped select this season's picks. He and his wife, Joni, see at least three films a week.
The cost is $45 for the series, which is to be held Sundays after an 8:30 a.m. bagel breakfast at Newport Beach's Edwards Big 6 Theater in Fashion Island. Last year's series drew about 250 people to each show.
In an attempt to broaden its series reach, University is encouraging ticket sales by other synagogues, which receive 50 percent of the proceeds.
Dr. Michael Berlin, a psychologist, screenwriter and assistant professor in the film and electronic arts department of Cal State University Long Beach, will hold post-film talks at both synagogue series.
For more information about the Pacific Jewish Film Festival, visit www.pjff.org Â or call (714) 755-0340 ext. 115.