When people think of Jewish film, their minds tend to jump right to two subjects: religion and the Holocaust. While the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival certainly embraces those subject matters, executive director Jerry Mittelman ensures that they make up only a slice of the wide spectrum of films the fest has to offer.

Romantic comedies, music documentaries and LGBT dramas are just a few of the many genres on display at the festival, which runs from Feb. 10 until Feb. 24 at Chandler Crossroads 12, Camelview 5 in Scottsdale and Arrowhead Fountains 18 in Peoria.

The East Valley Tribune recently spoke with Mittelman to discuss the fest’s not-to-miss movies, the impact of the Films In Schools program and the importance of the event to the Greater Phoenix community.

Q: To begin with, what is the selection process like for the films that ultimately show at the fest?

A: We have two film co-chairs who research the Internet and other film festivals, as well as take suggestions from anybody and everybody about films. One film chair handles the East Valley and the other manages North Phoenix, Scottsdale and the West Valley. The selection process is simple. They both see the same movies. If they both like the film, then it’s presented to both screening committees. If they both like the film or their opinion is split, the film is shown to both screening committees. If neither of them likes the film, then nobody gets to see it.

Then the screening committees both vote individually about whether or not they’d like to see it and they’ll put it on the program. I know this might sound complex, but they vote a lot of films that they’d like to see and then they really have to narrow that down later on because we just have room for so many. If both screening committees approve a film, then we show it out in the West Valley at Arrowhead, which we’re going to have to do until we get a screening committee out there. And that’s basically the process.

They screen films from all over the world and the criteria is that the film must have a Jewish theme. We do not show all Holocaust movies or religious films or Yiddish films or films that are strictly from Israel. We farm from all over the world – Australia, New Zealand, South America, Europe. We had one from Asia, I believe, a couple years ago.

I really have to emphasize, a lot of people think, “Oh, you only show religious films or Jewish people in synagogues,” and that is not true. Nor do we show only Holocaust films, we only have one Holocaust film a year. Yiddish films are kind of passé, they can’t draw too much of an audience these days. Israeli films are very good and some are just absolutely terrible.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about Films In Schools, the festival’s community outreach program?

A: Films In Schools started off about 5 years ago. We tested it with the religious schools and now we’re showing films to both religious and secular schools all over Maricopa County. Today, we’ve shown one film called “Life in a Jar” to over 3,500 kids and teachers. The teachers are generally history and social studies teachers. They combine the social studies’ classes and give us an hour. We come in and show the film. I have to say, the kids are just mesmerized by the whole thing. Some of the comments that they make are unbelievable. They’re shown to a mixed audience: They’re black, white, Native American, Latinos, boys, girls.

We have an essay contest session and the winner of the best essay gets a gift certificate to Best Buy or Target. The essays that we get are so dramatic; you could not believe what these kids can write. That’s undergoing some changes this year. We have more volunteers who are willing to go to the schools and make the presentation. In Arizona, the Holocaust has to be on the curriculum at certain grades.

This movie is about a woman who manages to take Jewish children from their families and placed them with non-Jewish families. She wrote the name of the child, the name of the family and the name of the foster family on cigarette paper, buried the papers in a jar in the lawn of Gestapo headquarters and at the end of the war, reunited a lot of those kids with relatives that survived the war. The impact of that has been wonderful. The community has accepted it nicely. The demand has slowly been building from schools to have our people come in and do this and we make the best use of it.

Q: I know you would encourage people to come see as many films as possible, but are there any in particular that you recommend or are excited for audiences to see?

A: It’s hard for me to say because I’m on the screening committee and I’ve seen all but two of these films. There’s something here for everybody. There’s mystery, comedy, musical, drama, espionage, shorts, documentaries. I’m a mystery guy, so I tend to like “My Best Enemy” since it’s a mystery show. If you like music, then there’s no possible way you could walk out of the theater not singing after seeing “Hava Nagila.” Then we have an interesting documentary called “AKA Doc Pomus” about Doc Pomus. He’s a musical composer that very people have ever heard of but he wrote songs for all the big-time singers. His big one was “Save The Last Dance For Me.” It’s the story of his life and how he overcame a tremendous amount of hardship to become who he was.

Q: Why do you encourage audiences both Jewish and non-Jewish to come check out the festival?

A: Well, first of all, the festival for the last 17 years has grown to become a very important part of the Jewish community. Its purpose is really to show slices of Jewish life to the entire community, not just to the Jewish community. One of our mottos is, “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these films.” Harkins picks them up, festivals pick them up, and arts theaters pick them up all over the country. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy them. We think that we are, in a sense, exposing Judaism and Jewish life through very normal people and their problems, headaches, life and stories to the community as a whole and trying to engender some type of relevance to the community that we’re all the same. What you see in these films can reflect anybody’s stories.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: We’re looking forward to our 18th year, which in Hebrew is a chai year, and that means “life.” Jewish people believe that 18 symbolizes life and good luck. We’re looking forward to that for 2014. We’re all volunteers – every single one of us is a volunteer. We have a terrific team and we work all year to put this together. Not just screening movies, but publicity, advertising, outreach programs and so forth. I can’t praise the people that work on this festival enough; they give a lot of their time and talent.

Also, so many cultural things are folding up and just fighting for existence. We are the last what I call dynamic – that means, by my definition, “with things that move.” We’re the last dynamic Jewish cultural event in the city. The Jewish theater has closed, the Jewish orchestra is gone, and the Jewish ballet is gone. We’re the last Jewish cultural event and we need the support of everyone to make sure we keep on going. That’s very important to us.

For more information about the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival and to purchase tickets, visit www.gpjff.org.

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