Exploring cultural identity

2015 Dayton Jewish International Film Festival

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: The 2015 Dayton Jewish Film Festival will screen “Dancing in Jaffa” on Wednesday, May 6

To answer the age-old question – what does it mean to be (blank) – requires deep and extensive investigation, on the level and scale of historic and cultural survey. And even then, the overall aim has less to do with coming to a conclusive and definitive answer, because, to be fair, no such thing truly exists. The question and the search for answers merely serve to open the hearts and minds of the respondents.

That preamble sets the stage for the 15th Annual Dayton Jewish International Film Festival, which runs through May 14 and offers ten films spanning both genres and the globe, while also providing local audiences with opportunities to delve more deeply into the topics raised during select festival screenings. You could say this festival and the host of other Jewish Film Festivals in the United States and around the world, to some degree, are invested in presenting facts, documenting experiences and perspectives and unearthing forgotten stories (both fiction and non) to advance audience understanding and awareness of Jewish culture and identity.

As a film critic and newbie programmer/curator for an educational non-profit, I am inevitably curious about the ways and means that go into the selection process for all manner of film events, especially in this age of near instant immediacy on the content side. Education and engagement on the subject of communal identity demands (or so it would seem) a collective immersion, but how can that occur when the availability of film, thanks to streaming services and far shorter exhibition windows, segments/fragments audiences to the point of rendering us all as little more than isolated particles in the ether?

I posed a few broad questions of my own to Jane Hochstein, the director of the Dayton Jewish Community Center (JCC), in the hopes of establishing a core focus for this year’s festival programming.

As you (and your selection team) were screening films for inclusion, were you guided by particular themes or ideas upfront, or did a theme emerge after the selection process?

Jane Hochstein: As the committee screens films from June-January, they are guided by the idea that they want a “balanced” festival: a variety of genres, a mix of feature films and documentaries.

How driven are you to possibly target newer releases (the showcasing of Jewish-themed films that may be in the current festival circuit) for the local audience?

JH: We try to target the newest releases as we begin the screening process each year. However, the final line-up is what the committee determines is the best of the best. Sometimes the best may not be one of the newest, but I can definitely say the screening committee gives a lot of thought into what it presents as the final line-up.

Is film festival programming, in your case, impacted at all by our expanded access to films via streaming and VOD?

JH: Expanded access to movies has definitely had an impact on programming. We try to stay on top of it and select films that are not readily available. The most important criteria in the film selection process is that the movies are well made and tell good, engaging stories. It is our hope that audiences will appreciate the outstanding world cinema and be educated and entertained through evocative, narrative and documentary films that we feature.

My own personal takeaway, based on my perusal of the schedule, calls for studied reflection; a notion that I believe every member of the audience seeks for themselves. As an African-American Catholic married to a Jewish woman with a strong cultural affiliation to all things Jewish, I gravitate to titles like the opening night film “The Jewish Cardinal,” which explores the real-life intersection of culture and religion or “The Sturgeon Queens,” which traces the surviving members of the family behind the now quite upscale Jewish deli Russ and Daughters.

My wife and I settled in for lunch at the famous deli during our spring break vacation to the city, and it never ceases to amaze me when you experience cultural intersections (the chopped liver harkened back to a similar dish from my Southern roots). The kinship that can be found over a table full of food cannot be denied, and while I shy away from bold declarations about identity, if you want to know what it means to be Jewish, a film like “The Sturgeon Queens” will certainly plant a seed that will send you on a further quest for your own answers and points of intersection.

The 2015 Dayton Jewish Film Festival runs through Thursday, May 14 with showings at The Neon, 130 E. Fifth St. For more information and to view the complete festival schedule and ticket options, please visit jewishdayton.org.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com. For additional film reviews, visit his blog at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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