by Patheresa Wells
The Seattle Jewish Film Festival (SJFF) celebrates its 27th year this month by screening 18 films from nine countries, all related to the theme “See + Be Seen.” The festival opened March 24, and it includes both virtual and in-person screenings held throughout the city at AMC Pacific Place, the Stroum Jewish Community Center, and the University of Washington. The festival runs through April 10.
Started in 1999 to celebrate the stories of Seattle’s small (compared with other metropolitan areas) Jewish community, SJFF quickly grew, garnering support from sponsors like Howard Schultz. Since 2012, the festival has been a part of the Stroum Jewish Community Center, an organization that supports the Jewish population while forging partnerships within Seattle-area communities.
Festival director Pamela Lavitt says the festival is important because film can be “a pathway to identifying with other people and communities.”
Lavitt says this year’s theme, “See + Be Seen,” is, in part, a call to get people to come out to the in-person events, but it’s also about representing the “mosaic of diversity” that is reflective of both Seattle and the Jewish community. “There’s something extremely life-affirming in seeing your representation … on screen,” she said.
One documentary, 8000 Paperclips, tells the story of a group of Hebrew-speaking South Sudanese children raised in Israel but eventually deported to Uganda. In the film, Israeli artist and TED Fellow Raffael Lomas visits Uganda to talk with the children.
The film audience hears directly from the children about their journeys fleeing Sudan to arrive in Israel, having to establish themselves in a new country and learn a new language only to be deported after they put down roots. Lomas shares his history with depression and the value that artistic expression has had in his life as a way to add context to the story of how the children deal with all they have faced.
8000 Paperclips also looks at how we form connections — to a place, to a culture, to a religion. During the film, the children are introduced to the Abayudaya Jewish community, a group of Ugandans practicing Judaism established in 1919. This meeting formed a connection between two groups living in Uganda who are a part of the Jewish community. Lomas narrates the meeting: “Art can create a bridge or a connection to worlds that are not a part of the art world.”
The festival includes many other films that offer a nuanced look at facets of the Jewish community, such as the comedy Greener Pastures, which delves into cannabis use and legality issues. The film follows Dov, a widower forced to move against his will into a nursing home he can’t wait to escape. But unfortunately for him, the loss of his pension means he’s trapped until he comes up with a plan to fund his way back into his old home.
Dov’s plan involves selling cannabis, not using it, though there is some of that, too. After searching online, Dov learns how the streets have been cleared of illegal weed — leaving a market that Dov hopes to fill by creating a cannabis co-op of senior medical marijuana users who send their excess prescriptions to meet the demand.
Dov has thought of everything, including enlisting the help of his grandson’s lawyer girlfriend to help skirt the law, and using the postal service he retired from to deliver the goods. But what seems like a well-thought-out plan quickly deteriorates as Dov is forced to deal with cops, love, and a local mob boss as he decides what matters most.
While humorous, the film addresses important topics. There is the use of cannabis, and other issues, like how society treats seniors, and grief, as Dov wrestles with the loss of his wife, his home, and moving on.
Ticket holders for Greener Pastures will also get access to a Zoom conversation, “Jews and Cannabis: A History from Biblical to Chai Times,” with Dr. Eddy Portnoy, director of exhibitions at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Lavitt wants filmgoers to know that the Institute’s mission is about using film as a platform to create conversations like this one that may be difficult to have.
‘Apples and Oranges’
Apples and Oranges is a documentary film that delves into the 1960s craze of volunteering on kibbutzim, agricultural-based communal settlements in Israel. Tourism developed around bringing European volunteers who wanted to experience a collective society to work on the kibbutz. Yet, despite their altruistic intentions, the volunteers brought things like sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll to these isolated communities. The film gives voice to several of these volunteers, many of whom came to provide aid after the Six-Day War, an armed conflict between Israel and a group of Arab states in 1967.
A decent amount of volunteers stayed, married, and even created tourist organizations in their home countries, recruiting others to come. But many also experienced more than they bargained for, and the film doesn’t shy away from issues of terrorist attacks, classism, and how the war in Lebanon and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict factored into helping on a kibbutz.
Lavitt hopes festival attendees will check out films like Apples and Oranges and 8000 Paperclips, which she calls “small documentary cinematic wonders.” She said, “These are unique opportunities. These films may never see the light of day anywhere else. And the stories, the nuances, [and] how they inspire thought is just unparalleled in the festival, so come out for the smaller films.”
In addition to the shorts series and the many documentaries and comedies, “See + Be Seen” also includes a bingeable TV series, a historical period drama, and a silent film. With virtual and in-person viewing options, as well as accompanying guest events and Zoom conversations, the festival is an excellent opportunity to experience how film provides a mirror to allow the vast diversity of the human condition to be seen.
To get tickets to SJFF and find information on this year’s lineup and schedule, visit the SJFF website. Passes and discounts are available for seniors and teens.
Patheresa Wells is a poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
📸 Featured Image: “8000 Paperclips” is about a group of Hebrew-speaking South Sudanese children raised in Israel but eventually deported to Uganda. The film is now showing at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival. (Photo: Question Everything Productions, courtesy of SJFF.)
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