Hilary Helstein, executive director of The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, walked into an interview wearing a purple dress, black boots and carrying a buzzing BlackBerry, appearing indefatigable, if a tad weary: The annual festival’s kickoff was only three weeks away, and in the past 24 hours Helstein had flown from New York to Los Angeles, stayed up until 2 a.m. finalizing the festival brochure, then awakened at 7 a.m. to attend to the myriad details involved in screening more than 25 films at 13 venues from Pasadena to Beverly Hills over the course of just one week, May 3-10.
Helstein spent the past year scouring other film festivals as well as the American Film Market for movies, and hundreds of DVDs are stacked in her West Hollywood home, souvenirs of her screenings in the selection process. “Of course it gets tedious,” she said of watching every one of those films. “You do it because you love film and filmmakers and want to create something compelling.”
This year’s festival will spotlight Jewish Hollywood, old and new: It kicks off at the Writers Guild Theater with the documentary “Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom,” which traces how Bernard Schwartz, the son of impoverished immigrants, became a Hollywood icon. Adding to the festivities will be a panel discussion among celebrities who knew Curtis and appear in the movie, such as Theresa Russell and Mamie Van Doren.
On May 6, actress Penelope Ann Miller, of the Oscar-winning silent film “The Artist,” is scheduled to introduce another classic silent film, 1924’s “The Moon of Israel,” which hasn’t screened publicly in 88 years. “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz made the film when he was still known as Mihály Kertész, and it caught the attention of mogul Jack Warner, who brought Curtiz to Hollywood. Also capitalizing on the success of “The Artist” is the French farce “OSS-117: Lost in Rio,” an opportunity to see Michael Hazanavicius once again direct actor Jean Dujardin, this time in a romp Helstein describes as “crazy, offbeat and raunchy.”
Another highlight will be “Shoah: The Unseen Interviews,” the Los Angeles premiere of a collection of additional conversations and outtakes from the 220 hours of footage Claude Lanzmann shot for his landmark 1985 documentary, “Shoah.”
Helstein put this all together with help from her co-chairs as well as a 12-person screening committee and some 50 volunteers. But Helstein has been the force behind the festival for all of its seven years (this year, for the first time, it has come under the auspices of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of The Jewish Journal). Pulling off this kind of festival here is no small feat, considering that several past Los Angeles incarnations of Jewish film festivals have come and gone, including one by the Laemmle Theatres in the 1990s that lasted only a few years.
Even though Los Angeles houses the second-largest Jewish community in the United States and certainly the largest element of the nation’s, if not the world’s, film industry, this is a tough festival town. Smaller cities, such as San Francisco and Atlanta, have established Jewish festivals that regularly draw tens of thousands of viewers; Helstein’s effort, which is still relatively young, has increased from 2,000 participants in 2006 to 4,500 last year..
“The L.A. Jewish community is so large and diverse that you get this splintering effect, and it’s hard to coalesce around a single event,” said Greg Laemmle, president of the Laemmle Theatres. He praised Helstein for her “tenacity, consistency, knowledge of film and filmmaking, and the community.”
“It’s hard for any film festival to get traction here, and that includes the Los Angeles Independent [Film] Festival and AFI,” said film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times
“This is such a Hollywood-centric city that it’s hard to break through the ‘noise’ and get people to turn out. And there are dozens of festivals here, so it’s hard to establish yourself as a destination where people say, ‘This is special and we have to pay attention.’ ”
Helstein is well aware of these challenges, noting that Los Angeles is also home to the Israel Film Festival and the Sephardic Film Festival, as well as ongoing film screenings at The Museum of Tolerance.
“There’s a lot of competition and a lot to do in L.A., whether Jewish or secular events,” she said. “The key that has helped sustain us is presenting unique programs and films that haven’t been seen here before, and to be the first to do something in L.A. And there’s always the ‘wow factor’; the fact is that we live in Hollywood and we have to figure out what’s going to be glitzy and glamorous and what we can offer audiences they can’t get someplace else.”
Putting together this year’s program cost about $100,000, a relatively small sum compared to the hundreds of thousands more dollars enjoyed by other festivals, Helstein said. “You have to become the Wizard of Oz,” she said of working on a shoestring. “You make things happen; you put on a big dog-and-pony show; you get donors and community involvement.”
Helstein’s own involvement draws on an intense love of film that began while she was growing up in a Reform home in Great Neck, N.Y., where she used to bring brown bag lunches to eat while seeing movies such as “The Ten Commandments” and “The Seventh Seal.”
After graduating from the State University of New York at Oneonta, she balanced working in corporate Manhattan with acting gigs — hiring all the middle management as a human resources manager for the then-budding Telemundo television network, for example, while studying performance at the Herbert Berghof Studio and the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute.
Around 1990, she moved to Los Angeles to get into the entertainment business, landing a job in development at Tom Hanks’ company, where, she said, “The script for ‘Forrest Gump’ sat on my desk for two years before it was made.” The three years she worked for Hanks gave her an education in filmmaking from script to set; Helstein learned about production while working on sets in various departments or as an actor with directors such as David Lynch. She moved to Malaysia for five months to serve as a stand-in for actress Patricia Arquette in “Beyond Rangoon.”
Along the way, she began conducting interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, eventually becoming one of the organization’s top interviewers, as she met with more than 300 survivors, including those rescued by Varian Fry.
In the mid-1990s, she drew on her interviewing experience when she began shooting her own documentary, “As Seen Through These Eyes,” about Holocaust artists, which she describes as a “labor of love” that took 10 years to produce.
It was while curating an exhibition on Holocaust painter Samuel Bak at the Milken Jewish Community Center that its then-executive director, Jack Mayer, suggested Helstein put together a film festival in 2005. “So we got a small grant from The Federation to get started, and Jack left me alone in an office and said, ‘Just let me know what’s going on,’ ” recalled Helstein, who is now in her 40s. “And I said to him, ‘I don’t want to make just a JCC festival, it has to be big.’ ”
Helstein promptly met with other festival directors to learn the ropes and find out how to contact distributors, and her first festival began with some 20 films in eight venues in 2006.
As the festival has grown, Helstein has also incorporated word-of-mouth screenings of new films, which take place throughout the year; highlights have included “A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg’s period drama about the sexually charged relationship between the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), her lover Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, with Cronenberg appearing for a Q-and-A.
The 2010 festival screened “Holy Rollers,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Chasid who becomes a drug smuggler, and premiered a short film by Antwone Fisher.
The festival has not been without critics. Last month, Helstein drew ire after she declined to screen “Standing Silent,” Scott Rosenfelt’s documentary about sexual abuse within Baltimore’s Orthodox community — and her e-mail warning other festival directors about the film being a “witch hunt” was made public (see sidebar).
Some critics have accused the festival of attempting to be nonconfrontational, but Helstein disagreed. “We work together as a team to try to bring the best to our community,” she said. “And we certainly do show some of what other festivals show. But our priority is to premiere films that have never been seen before. We do a lot of U.S. and L.A. premieres.”
Helstein declined to comment about the “Standing Silent” affair. But when asked how she balances programming provocative films that will also appeal to a diverse crowd, she said that balance is key. “I don’t see any reason to upset people on the right or on the left,” she said. “There are all kinds of people who have all kinds of opinions, and the goal is to present programs that are balanced and have enough information to support what you’re showing.”
When Turan recently perused a press release of festival highlights, he pronounced them “quite interesting,” particularly the silent film and the Shoah unseen interviews. “It looks like a strong lineup,” he said.
For full schedule, tickets and information, visit www.lajfilmfest.org.