At the heart of Los Angeles' Jewish community lies a paradox. As the community grows and spreads into different areas in the Southland, can it still be a community? It is this very question that Hilary Helstein, executive director of the latest incarnation of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, has had to confront.
Her predecessors, like Greg Laemmle, whose theater chain ran the Cinema Judaica for a number of years, were never able to build a truly successful franchise in the past.
Helstein, a documentary filmmaker, says of the previous festivals, "They didn't know their audience." She points out that they often showed "films released in years prior, like 'Frisco Kid' and 'Exodus.' My goal is to not show 'Schindler's List' again, but to take a fresh approach."
That means fewer Holocaust films, a greater mix of comedy and other offbeat genres, such as animation, and several world premieres, including the opening night film, "When Do We Eat?" which she calls a "wacky Passover comedy" starring Lesley Ann Warren and Jack Klugman, and the closing night film, "Keeping Up With the Steins," another comedy, this one from Miramax, directed by Scott Marshall, son of Garry Marshall.
She hopes these two films will "create a buzz with something light and uplifting." She adds that it is important "to be able to incorporate Hollywood-type films into the mix," along with the more traditional fare of documentaries, such as "Only in America," directed by Ron Frank and produced by Ann Benjamin, which follows 2000 vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman around on the campaign trail.
Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, echoes the need for more spectacle in a Los Angeles film festival. In order for a "film festival of any type to succeed in L.A.," he says, "it needs to have a jazzy element, a show biz component."
He notes that the L.A. festival that most successfully adhered to this "playful and unconventional" marketing strategy was Filmex, back in the 1970s, before the AFI festival and all the others.
Unlike Toronto, which has only one festival, Los Angeles has many including the Sephardic Film Festival, which did not take place last year, and the Israel Film Festival. There are so many, Turan says, that festival directors must avoid so-called "Field of Dreams" marketing: "You can't just take for granted, 'If you build it, they will come.'"
In a push for irreverence and frivolity, Helstein has scheduled a night of three comedy shorts at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood, including "Chutzpah, Is It?" a "hip-hop-umentary" about a Jewish rap group. She is also targeting Latinos with "Only Human (Seres Queridos)," a Spanish-subtitled film about a Palestinian-Jewish love affair.
The festival is the brainchild of Jack Mayer, head of the Jewish Community Center at Milken in the Valley. It will kick off on April Fool's Day and run through April 6, with screenings at the center, Valley Beth Shalom and Sinai Temple, as well as at the Laemmle Theaters in Encino and Fallbrook.
When asked why there will be no screenings at Laemmle's theaters in Pasadena and downtown, Greg Laemmle said, "It's a numbers game. The Valley will do two to three times as much business as Pasadena."
Calling L.A.'s Jewish community "Balkanized," Laemmle said, "there may be an asset in being a smaller Jewish community."
He points to the success of Jewish film festivals in San Diego and Washington, D.C., as well as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the world's oldest Jewish film fest.
According to Peter Stein, the San Francisco festival's executive director, its success has rested partly on the recognition that, in an age of numerous, convenient leisure options, the festival has to "bring media to the people." Celebrating its 26th year this July, the San Francisco festival now screens not only at its flagship Castro Theater, but also in Berkeley, Mountain View and Marin County.
In addition to extending its venues across the Bay Area, Stein says that the festival makes a concerted effort to attract non-Jews, who comprise 25 percent to 30 percent of its audiences. The festival has distributed catalogs in cafes and made strategic partnerships, for example, with churches and other African American community organizations when it screened "Strange Fruit," about a Jewish communist and Billie Holiday.
Laemmle concurs about the importance of developing community partnerships.
"Most film festivals do not succeed on ticket sales alone," he said. "There is a need for sponsors and donors."
Helstein says that she has enlisted the aid of a number of synagogues, high schools and other organizations. Volunteers like Kim Cavallo have helped Helstein partner with Gold Graphics, which produced street banners for the L.A. Jewish Film Festival, and Glyphix, whose owner, Larry Cohen, has designed the logo, a palm tree with a reflection of the Star of David.
As vital as the partnerships are, Stein also stresses the necessity of making the festival "different than an ordinary film experience. There must be a human-interactive experience," so "it's not just turning out the lights and watching a movie."
Panel discussions with filmmakers are a standard means of drawing an audience, and Helstein will have several, including panels with the cast and director at both the opening and closing night films.
But Helstein will also appeal to the whole family on Sunday, April 2, with animation workshops, tricycle races and bagel breaks. While the film to be screened, "39 Pounds of Love," about a sickly child, may not be suitable for young children, Helstein realizes she must present a lively and entertaining festival.
In a city with numerous film festivals and competing Jewish cultural organizations like the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance, Helstein is trying to differentiate her product in the marketplace: "We're focused on new films with relevance to today's topics."
The opening night film, "When Do We Eat?" screens at 8 p.m. at the WGA Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information on the festival or to buy tickets, call (818) 464-3300 or visit www.LAJFilmFest.org.
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