In March, The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival made headlines because its executive director, Hilary Helstein, had sent a negative e-mail to other festival directors about the documentary “Standing Silent,” which shines a light on sexual abuse by rabbis within the Orthodox community. Controversy erupted when Helstein’s Sept. 6 e-mail was made public, revealing that she had described the film, as seen by her team, as a “witch hunt” and put a “warning sticker” on it for other festivals.
The film’s producer and director, Scott Rosenfelt (“Home Alone,” “Mystic Pizza”), told The Journal he was livid when he learned about Helstein’s missive just before a “Standing Silent” screening at the Hartford Jewish Film Festival on March 20. A moderator read Helstein’s letter aloud to the audience during the Q-and-A session, following which, Rosenfelt said, “The audience basically gasped.” “Standing Silent” has screened at more than 20 other Jewish films festivals and was profiled in a feature in the Washington Post.
In her e-mail, Helstein told her colleagues that her team had “flat out” rejected the film: “We have a fairly conservative community in L.A. and … our committee felt with a community that reveres it’s [sic] rabbis this was not something they wanted to show.” Helstein went on to say: “I just wanted to put a warning sticker on this one so that you are aware.”
Rosenfelt fired back on March 22 in a scathing e-mail to Helstein, accusing her, among other things, of being “clearly not someone who supports filmmakers.”
In a telephone interview, Rosenfelt acknowledged that his language was “harsh.” But, he said, he was speaking for victims who have had their stories squelched by communities more interested in protecting abusive rabbis.
Helstein declined to comment on the matter. However, John Fishel, the L.A. festival’s honorary chair, described the controversy as a matter of media “spin out of control, generating a lot of emotion and anger.” He said Rosenfelt’s e-mail presented an unfair portrait of Helstein and the festival, which, he said, “is a very, very good one, and it’s getting better every year.”
Los Angeles is not the only festival in recent years to have to deal with the repercussions of decisions regarding films that can alienate audiences. In 2009, the San Francisco Jewish film festival, the largest in the United States, ignited fierce debate when it screened a documentary about Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist killed while acting as a human shield in 2003.