Maine Jewish Film Festival Celebrates 20 Years of Community Engagement

From the film, “Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana,” shown at the 2017 Maine Jewish Film Festival.

By Barbara Merson

Maine would seem to be an unlikely place to host a highly successful Jewish Film Festival for 20 years. The Jewish community is small (it is often estimated at approximately 10,000) and characterized by relatively low level of affiliation with the organized Jewish community. The community is concentrated in the Portland area, where competing cultural and educational offerings of all types abound. Maine lacks the Jewish infrastructure of large Jewish population centers, especially for funding sources. However, in spite of challenges, the Maine Jewish Film Festival triumphantly celebrated its 20th anniversary season this March. While every community and every film festival is different, analyzing the success of the Maine Jewish Film Festival provides some insight into creative ways to engage and educate an adult community.

I came to the Maine Jewish Film Festival from a very different kind of Jewish community – Westchester, New York. Looking back at my previous experience with Jewish film festivals in larger Jewish communities, it was clear to me that there are a number of distinguishing factors that are crucial to the Maine Jewish Film Festival’s success:

  • The festival is an independent organization run by an active group of volunteer leaders in partnership with a minimal staff;
  • The festival cultivates partnerships with Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, influencers, and funders, recognizing that a strong connection with the greater Maine community is necessary in order to be both vibrant and viable;
  • The festival is a non-political organization that taps into local, national, and international political concerns by being a catalyst for civil discourse; and

In short, at the Maine Jewish Film Festival we have taken what some might consider to be lemons and made lemonade that is both delicious and long-lasting.

The mission of the Maine Jewish Film Festival is to enrich, educate, and entertain a diverse audience by presenting films based on the global Jewish experience. Results from a recent survey of the 2017 festival audience demonstrate the achievement of this mission. Over 30 comedies, dramas and documentaries were shown to a record audience of over 3000 filmgoers. Statistics from a recent audience survey show that 31% of the approximately 260 survey participants attended a MJFF film for the first time this year. The level of satisfaction with the festival was very high, with 100% of respondents saying that they would recommend the Maine Jewish film festival to a friend.

One of the most interesting responses from the survey was to a question asking for religious identification. One might expect that a Jewish film festival would have a majority of people who identified as Jews. In fact, the survey results showed that 50% identified as Jewish, 22% identified as Christian, and 28% identified as “other.” Typical clarifications for the “other” category included “raised Christian but not observant,” “deep association with Judaism through friends,” and “spiritual, no organized religion.” By showing high quality films about interesting subjects, our film festival was able to appeal both to those who identify as Jews and a diverse audience of those who do not. The diversity of our audience contributed both to great attendance and to very stimulating post-film discussions.

Maine audiences, including the local press, have embraced our tag line, “When it comes to great films, we all speak the same language.” We partner with many local nonprofit organizations, educational entities, and media outlets. These collaborations are crucial to our success. As a very small organization with a very active Board and only one full-time staff member, we rely on our partners to open doors and help us reach a wide audience. But this is a mutually beneficial partnership, as we bring people to our partners as well. For example, during the festival we presented two art related films at the Portland Museum of Art, attracting those who are typically filmgoers to the museum and those who are typically museum-goers to the films. Our partnerships extend into funding; we receive funding both from foundations with Jewish interests and those who have interests in areas that our films address such as LGBTQ issues, living with disabilities, and values education.

One of the questions I’m often asked is “what makes a film eligible for a Jewish film festival?” Answers to this question are fraught with controversies – how much Jewish is enough Jewish? How can the film festival remain relevant but not take political positions? How do we balance artistic and commercial goals? As an independent organization, we have considerable freedom in that we do not have to address concerns of a parent organization, but also a strong obligation to use our position as one of the premier Maine arts organizations in a responsible way. Our film selections are made by a screening committee comprised of individuals with a wide range of age, religious affiliation, Jewish knowledge, sexual orientation, and geographic location. In spite of this diversity, there is generally a high degree of consensus on what films should be shown and which films would be better appreciated with an illuminating discussion.

Approaching potentially difficult subjects through films doesn’t avoid controversy, but it does give common experience that helps the viewers engage in civil discourse. Bill Nemitz, a prominent columnist for the Portland Press Herald wrote, “And if you’re still wondering whether a Jewish film festival might be worth a few hours of your time, consider your options over the next couple of weeks. You can sit by yourself, night after night, in front of the mind-numbing cable news on your living room TV. Or you can take in something truly different with a roomful of fellow Mainers. And then, even better, linger for a while to talk about it” (Portland Press Herald 3/12/2017).

Much has been written about the polarization of the American public and also the Jewish community and the difficulty of bridging the conversational gaps between opposing viewpoints. Film festivals such as ours, while not a panacea, are a valuable resource for increasing knowledge and understanding, leading to a greater willingness to engage with the issues in a constructive way. We are proud of our 20 year history, and look forward to reaching out to the entire Maine community for many more years to come.

Barbara Merson is Executive Director, Maine Jewish Film Festival.