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Austin Jewish Film Festival kicks off with hopes to 'break down hatred'

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin 360
"Xueta Island" will screen as part of Austin Jewish Film Festival 2021.

The 19th annual Austin Jewish Film Festival starts this week and will include both in-person and virtual events.

Last year, the festival was mostly virtual, with a couple of drive-in movies, because of the coronavirus pandemic. But with coronavirus vaccines available and Austin-Travis County in Stage 3 of Austin Public Health’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines, attendees can meet up in person this year, if they’re comfortable.

David Finkel, the festival’s director, said the festival will be following the pandemic guidelines of this year’s venue for the festival: Galaxy Highland theater at 6700 Middle Fiskville Road. Attendees will be asked to keep distance and wear a mask when they are not eating or drinking during screenings, he said. 

“If someone has any doubt, this is exactly why we did the ‘enjoy it your way approach,’ because we don’t want someone to feel left out. It’s like, ‘OK. We absolutely understand that. Watch online,’” Finkel said. 

We checked in with Finkel ahead of the fest, which runs Nov. 11-16. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. For more information on tickets and screenings, go to austinjff.org.

American-Statesman: Many anti-Semitic incidents have happened recently in Austin, and so close to the kickoff of the festival, including suspected arson at Congregation Beth Israel and about a dozen people displayed a hateful banner over MoPac Boulevard in October. How are you feeling, and how do these incidents underscore the festival’s importance for you? 

More:Image of arson suspect in Central Austin synagogue fire released

David Finkel: Obviously, it’s disappointing to see anti-Semitic acts being committed in our city. This is not the Austin I know. ...

But the reaction of our community … I think the best example of this is, if you look at what (Interfaith Action of Central Texas) did very, very shortly after, it was something like 500 signatures of people supporting the Jewish community. Clergy from all different stripes came out to show support for the Jewish community, and that’s the Austin that I know. 

More:Austin leaders rally behind Jewish community after 3 anti-Semitic incidents over the weekend

Long before these events happened, and on a continual basis, we’re always trying to fight anti-Semitism and hate of any kind. I think when people hear of a film festival, they think, “Oh, you know, I’m going to get entertained,” or they go watch a documentary and get a little bit informed. Of course we do that, but I think the really serious work of what we do and what films do is so much more.

There’s a quote, which I like ... it goes along the lines of: “Films aren’t very good at answering questions, but they’re very good at posing them.” I think that the serious part of what film does is it brings people together to learn about different cultures and to have a shared experience and an opportunity to engage with each other.

About 25% of our audience is not Jewish, and we’re always looking to increase that. What we want people to do is to come out of a film, see somebody they don’t know, and start talking to them about the film they just saw. I think that’s one small step along the lines of trying to break down hatred and build bridges across your artistic community and encounter people and customs and faith that maybe you’re not familiar with and you want to learn more about it.

Tell us about this hybrid version of the festival. We’re obsessed with the tagline: “Oy Vey! Enjoy it YOUR way!” (“Oy vey” is Yiddish for experiencing dismay or upset at something.)

The idea behind that is sort of, “Oy vey, there’s a pandemic and we miss our friends, oy vey!” 

If you have a festival pass, you can choose to participate online or in person, and you can mix and match. You can go to one event in person and one online. If you’re buying a ticket to an individual film, you’re going to have to choose whether you want an online ticket or an in-person ticket. 

How does it feel to be back, now that coronavirus vaccines are a reality? Are you excited to experience the fest in person this year? 

We made a lot of preparations, and I think things are aligned about as well as they possibly can be. But at the same time, I will be wearing a mask there, and I'll be happy to greet people. Until everything's over, I don't want to jinx anything.

What films do you think will have a big impact this year?

There's an amazing film, you talk about impact, called "Marry Me However." It's the story of gay, principally gay, but also lesbian Orthodox Jews, who want to live a religious life and have been encouraged by their rabbis to go against their sexual orientation.

Another one that may be quite interesting and impactful in terms of having an interesting discussion is "Xueta Island." It's about the history of crypto-Jews on the island of Mallorca in Spain. A lot of people know that in 1492, there was the expulsion from Spain and Portugal, when Jews were made to either forcibly convert or leave. The anti-Semitism against Jews in the 15th century happened much earlier in Mallorca, I think it was in the 1430s. So when the inquisitor arrived on the island of Mallorca, most of the Jewish community had already "converted" to Christianity. The inquisitor moved on. But these families that remained. They weren't really accepted as Catholics; they were always sort of known as "other," this idea of "xueta." 

Oftentimes, even though they weren't Jewish, they weren't considered Catholic, either. And they were sort of put in this "other" category and experienced (erasure). 

"Xueta Island" tells the story of crypto-Jewish communities in Europe.

What parts of the festival are you most excited for?

This is always kind of like, "Who's your favorite child?" I gotta mention a couple of films. "Xueta Island," which will have its North American premiere. "The Musicians" is a story that starts with some anti-Semitism between one musician and another. One of them is Jewish, one of them is not, and during the process of the second World War, they actually at one point need each other and then sort of help each other. It's just a good drama. 

The other one ... I try to stay away from playing favorites with films, and this one, I really, really, really liked. And I have to tell you, when I first heard about it, it sounded terrible. I wasn't sure I'd really be interested in it. But my colleague from the San Antonio Jewish Film Festival, Betsy Cowan, she said, "(We) got a documentary called 'Dirty Tricks,'" and I said, "Well what's it about?" She said, "Bridge. ... You have to watch this." OK, so I watched it, and it's unbelievable. It's about bridge, but not the kind of bridge your grandmother plays. It's about the ultra-elite levels of bridge.