Gay Gezunt! March 11 screens The Cakemaker
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
The 23rd annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival returns this Saturday, March 10, things kicking off with a gala screening of director Oded Raz's buddy comedy Maktub at Seattle's downtown AMC Pacific Place Theatre.
Accompanying the film will be a Dessert Party featuring a smorgasbord of delectable treats created by Seattle's own celebrity chef Tom Douglas, literally ensuring that the evening's festivities will be a delectable, sugary treat to attend.
For the first time ever, the festival is split into two parts in 2018, the main section running from March 10 thru March 18 with screenings and events at AMC Pacific Place, the SIFF Uptown Cinema and at the Seattle Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. Following the main week's events there will also be a first-ever Mini-Festival on the Eastside running April 14 and 15, gala screenings and events scheduled for the Regal Cinebarre Issaquah 8. More information on the Seattle Jewish Film Festival can be found at http://www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org/
For LGBTQ viewers, the festival's popular Gay Gezunt! returns once again with a gala screening of writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer's award-winning drama The Cakemaker on Sunday, March 11, at 8:40pm at AMC Pacific Place (600 Pike St.) In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll actually be introducing the film this year, so if you want to see me mumble a few words and make a valiant attempt to sound like I know what I'm talking about make sure you attend. If that's not a good enough reason to be at the theatre, the movie is flat-out terrific, which in all honesty should be reason enough to give it a look all by itself. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Hearing Sara Michelle talk about film is always a special occasion and a tremendous opportunity to learn more about and absorb her knowledge and passion for film.]
I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Stroum Jewish Community Center of Greater Seattle Director of Cultural Arts and longtime festival programmer Pamela Lavitt to talk a little bit about this year's event. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: We're back for another year! What's the excitement level like this go-around? Or has this just became old hat for you at this point?
Pamela Lavitt: The Seattle Jewish Film Festival is never old hat! Pishaw! Or, 'poo, poo,' as they say in superstitious Yiddish.
Each year we have over 400 films to consider, a prolific plenty of Jewish and Israeli cinema and nuanced stories to choose from and filmmakers to invite. This year, we are expanding the festival, adding another two days and four films to the lineup at a full-menu venue. Yes, dinner and drinks can be ordered! Or hang out at the bar before or after the show! With Israel turning 70, this milestone gave us the opportunity to focus on Israeli cinema. Almost half our films are from Israel in part or in whole.
Furthermore, every other year we offer a REEL Difference Award to a filmmaker who makes a real difference through their work, and Tiffany Shlain is this year's recipient. She's an Internet pioneer, founder of the Webby Awards and an Emmy nominated filmmaker with numerous Sundance premieres and has a social justice / social initiative component to her work making her a global talent worth celebrating. [Tiffany] lived in Seattle briefly but has not attended our festival before. Her 'Spoken Cinema' closing program is going to be very exciting.
In sum, it's fun to reinvent, rebrand and celebrate REEL Jewish and this is REEL life every year, and we have fun finding new ways to [program] and find new guests to bring to our region. Oh, and did I mention that Hedy Lamarr's daughter, Denise Loder-DeLuca, lives in Seattle and will introduce the documentary about her mother? And that she used to be a JCC member? Who knew? I just love how film brings so many people 'out' in our community.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What were the challenges in regards to this year's festival?
Pamela Lavitt: Our first challenge was to respond to survey requests for either a North End or Eastside venue. People have been asking for this for years so we needed to find the right location with the right assets, and Regal Cinebarre Issaquah 8, with a full food, drink and bar menu, was just the ticket.
But in the Jewish world, it wasn't as easy as just adding another venue for a few days or a weekend. We are beholden to the Jewish calendar, and Passover is right after the festival and we have a number of hot-ticket cultural events after as well (including James Beard Award-winning Israeli-New Orleans chef Alon Shaya, whose cookbook release party is accompanied by Creole cocktails, Bayou-ites and a Louisiana DJ in the house on March 24), so we are skipping over a month and having a mini-Fest on April 14 and 15. We will have to see how it goes. It's a new demographic, a new venue, new dates and we are hoping the community responds.
Also, we want to welcome in diverse communities from the Issaquah, Redmond, Kirkland and the Snohomish corridor, all of whom don't get a lot of Jewish/Israeli films coming their way with wider appeal, films such as the opener Shalom Bollywood about Indian-Jewish cinema legends. There is a 500-year history of Indian-Jews or Bene-Israel, and it's always a challenge to ensure that folks from India and South East Asia attend the festival. We want to keep building those bridges.
Sara Michelle Fetters: This past year, there's been so much activity in regards to the SJCC. Alan Alda. Stephen Tobolowsky. Those are only two of the names and events you sponsored and organized this past year. What's it mean to you to have year-round events like these? Do you have even more planned for the future?
Pamela Lavitt: To quote from Hamilton, 'Just you wait&Just you wait.' We are hitting our groove!
SJFF is part of the SJCC (Stroum Jewish Community Center) Arts + Ideas programs. Nationally and internationally known artists and speakers are coming to our venue which opened three years ago. I modeled these events on a 92nd Street Y model in New York City. We run a full season of programs including spoken word, global music, comedy and chef and author talks. There are film forums year-round. Finally, names and faces people know and love are coming to our theater. We just announced Nigella Lawson is coming next on April 24. The celebrity chef, TV broadcaster and personality has a new book At My Table and we are holding a high noon tea VIP event which has already sold out! We'll also have a chef talk with a tea tasting by our sponsor Sholom Teas which will feature both kosher and organic options.
And we continue to aim higher. For the stars, so to speak. And not just in regard to Jewish/Israeli performers (i.e. celebrities like Alan Alda). Coming up on April 19 Israel's hit podcast based on 'This American Life' called 'Israel Story' will be here. It focuses on a bunch of young Israelis showing the complex diversity of Israel in long-form storytelling mentored by Ira Glass. This is just one way we can educate the region about the nuances of Israeli life, and they are absolutely amazing on stage with live music, multimedia stories and live sound.
Also coming soon is YidLife Crisis. These comedians do shtick all in Yiddish, but everyone will laugh young and old; Jewish and non-Jewish. These guys became famous with a web sitcom series on YouTube with star cameos from Mayim Bialik and Howie Mandel and they've swept up awards at Jewish film festivals around the country.
Finally, on June 3 African rhythms meet Jewish ones as the big band Zion80 comes to town. Members of this band play with other known bands such as the Klezmatics and Matisyahu. Years ago, we tried to fit all of this into the festival. Now we have another nine months to present amazing Jewish and Israeli artists and bring people together year-round.
But wait, there's more! We are launching a new festival in Winter 2018 with a footprint like SJFF around town, featuring some even more famous faces. Tentative name: 'Shmuzik. Just you wait!' We are having so much fun. To the film infinity, and beyond!
Sara Michelle Fetters: Always nice to see that the Gay Gezunt! program has returned. Heck, I'll even be there to introduce the film The Cakemaker this year. Why is this program important? Why make sure films like this one are represented at the festival?
Pamela Lavitt: One of the first Yiddish words I learned as a kid growing up in New York was, 'fegele,' literally Yiddish for 'bird' but slang for 'queer' or 'gay.' It was hard for me to bear that a minority culture could use a term to minimize members of our community. Being active in Jewish social justice my whole life with organizations like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in NY founded and led by awesome lesbians back in my New York days, and following new Yiddish poets like Irena Klepfisz, LGBTQ thoughts and ideas were interwoven into the filmmaking and performance culture I was a part of, and it included people like Tony Kushner along with so many others.
When I came to Seattle and started directing the festival, adding an LGBTQ component wasn't rocket science. Out of 400 submissions, many fall into the LGBTQ category and we have a very strong relationship with Three Dollar Bill Cinema, sharing films and showing some excellent ones twice. They are 'judged' by the committee and programmers just like other entries but we prioritize having at least one featured slot because we have amazing options, amazing gay-identified programmers and amazing gay partners such as Congregation Tikvah Chadashah and many Queer and Trans members of Temple Beth Am, Kol Haneshemah and Congregation Beth Shalom.
It's just part of the weave of our mosaic and Jewish diversity. It's a priority to show all the prismatic colors of the rainbow. SJFF strives for diversity of representation; demographically, by age, by affiliation, by country, by political ideas and points of view. When I studies Yiddish many years ago we made T-shirts that said, 'gay maidel,' which means, 'go girl,' in hot pink. Everyone wore it! That's the goal. Get everyone to see the mosaic of Jewish life and spectrums of identity as their own. Israel also has some amazing gay filmmakers like Tomer Heymann whose output often features gay subjects with universal messages and done brilliantly. It's really as simple as that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Quick! Two films (or programs) you feel audiences simply MUST make it a priority to see or be a part of?
Pamela Lavitt: Praise the Lard on March 13. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story on March 16. Her daughter is coming. How can you not attend! The Testament on March 15. 'Tiffany Shlain's Spoken Cinema' on March 18. She's a Ted Talk and a Sundance Filmmaker all wrapped into one. Glorious! Shalom Bollywood and Your Honor showing during the Eastside Mini-Festival.
Wait. That's more than two. Whoops! It's all great. See everything!
Sara Michelle Fetters: At the end of the day, what do you hope audiences take away from the festival? What do you hope they are talking about?
Pamela Lavitt: That SJFF presents a colorful mosaic and diverse spectrum of amazing international films and that we go above and beyond to feed your senses, as well as to literally feed you as often as possible. Come on honey, eat something! The Jewish mother in me says that constantly. We've got tons of food. We've got forums for dialogue, conflict, passion, debate and good old-fashioned schmoozing. It's a kaleidoscopic world we hope you will enter and radiate in all year long. Or at least until our next Arts+Ideas program or film screening!
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