Edmonton Jewish Film Festival hopes to soar wider in second virtual incarnation

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Making note of its 25th anniversary this year, Edmonton Jewish Film Festival coordinator Susan Schiffman says, “it really is overshadowed.”

“It’s so important. But it’s so hard to celebrate.”

Oh, pandemic — will you never retract those talons?

But up in the air, there’s quite often light. While this year’s festival runs May 2 through 11 — online only for its second plague year in a row — Schiffman notes its virtual mutation in 2020 actually saw the festival expand considerably. And thanks to its sponsors, it’s also free.

“Obviously,” she says of the borderless internet, “it allows us to reach more people. Last year we had viewers all over Canada, all over the U.S., some in Europe, some in Israel.

“We were truly an international festival, from a viewer perspective.”

Viewership actually “tripled and quadrupled” in many cases, and, she explains with a laugh, “You don’t have to go into a theatre lobby and be the only one that looks different, that doesn’t know anybody.”


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Schiffman ran a survey last year and “found out that a lot of people actually prefer virtual festivals.

“So, I think in the future we will probably continue to some kind of hybrid for people with young children who can’t get away in the evenings, seniors who don’t like to drive downtown at night.”

Big thinkers weighing in

During vacillating lockdowns, she also connected with more programmers and directors worldwide, networking and levelling up.

“Another thing that the virtual format has done is given us access to a quality of speakers that we never had access to before,” now just a Zoom call away, “because it was too expensive to bring them here.”

This year’s festival will feature a number of thinkers from far away places like Tel Aviv and New York City, plus filmmakers from across Canada, including the last two winners of the festival’s annual Earl Parker Award. The award-sponsored 2019 film production was delayed by the pandemic — so it’s a double dose of fresh storytelling from Montreal’s KlezKanada and Vancouver’s Malka Martz-Oberlander, who will be on a pandemic filmmaker panel at 8:30 p.m. on May 10.

As for the regular program of shorts and never-before-locally-screened features, it looks as compelling as ever — all you have to do is register at jewishedmonton.org, which helps the fest keep track of the numbers.

A new feature is available to watch between noon and 10 p.m. each day, and that day only, “to give it that festival feeling” of limited-time destination, Schiffman explains. It’s a great idea.

As is tradition, we go through a few highlights, starting with Shari Rogers’ opening-day (May 2) film Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance, a documentary focusing on cooperation during the ’60s Civil Rights movement.

“There were a lot of prominent Jewish leaders very heavily involved. I think it’ll be interesting for the Baby Boomers, kind of a walk down memory lane,” says Schiffman. “Jewish leaders worked hand-in-hand with Black leaders, with Martin Luther King — it was very much clergy-to-



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The film moves into the present, noting how Black-Jewish activist relations have evolved into the BLM era.

“It’s about building bridges between people, about historical bridge building. What can we learn from history, and how does that shape what we do today?” Schiffman notes.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, MLA David Shepherd will host a virtual panel with the filmmaker and academic Bruce Haines.

Another highlight Schiffman pulls out is Eytan Fox’s drama Sublet, showing on Tuesday, May 4. It’s the story of a gay travel writer who falls for a much younger man in Tel Aviv, “a bit of a love affair with Tel Aviv itself,” says Schiffman. “It’s also got some interesting history in it, because this guy is old enough to have lived through the AIDS epidemic in New York.”

The Zoom “special feature” here will be a live presentation by Eytan Halon, head of International Press Tel Aviv Global, Wednesday at noon.

An anti rom-com

Schiffman next summons Maya Sarfaty’s documentary Love, It Was Not, playing Wednesday.

“It’s about a woman who was a prisoner at Auschwitz who was in a romantic relationship with one of the senior Nazi guards, so it is very troubling and very dark,” says Schiffman. “The filmmaker did some really interesting archival research, and went back through Holocaust testimonials, and found people who knew the woman. It asks, ‘What is acceptable to do to stay alive?’”

Holocaust documentary Love, It Was Not asks some tough, fascinating questions.
Holocaust documentary Love, It Was Not asks some tough, fascinating questions. Photo by supplied

Noon Thursday, U.K. journalist David Herman will talk about the film and broaden its context.


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“He himself is the child of Holocaust survivors, a very, very learned guy who worked in film for a long time,” Schiffman explains.

These are just three; the full schedule is up at jewishedmonton.org, including its shorts, which are spread throughout the fest’s ten-day run.

When you register, there’s also a spot to donate, if you’re so inclined. Through such donations, with help from its sponsors, EJFF has already raised more than $25,000 for the Jewish Federation of Edmonton’s COVID Relief Program, which provides grocery cards and financial aid to Jewish individuals and organizations hard hit by the pandemic.

Looking back at her five years as coordinator, Schiffman sees the EJFF as a place that brings people from all over together.

“It shares our history. It’s a meeting point, both a tool for our community to meet each other, as well as a tool for our community to outreach to others,” she says, inviting one and all to the conversation — which ends with a virtual pub talk at 8:30 p.m. on May 11.

Her own community is politically and culturally diverse, which is considered when programming.

“It is a balancing act,” she laughs. “We do have very different opinions in our community across the spectrum.

“Sometimes we’ll piss off one group and you have to do it, you know, within reason.”

But doesn’t this last note of hers sounds like the basic motivation for filmmaking itself? “You know, provoke a bit, and see what happens,”




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