One of the biggest film festivals in Miami is one many would think is relegated to a particular audience: Jews living in Miami. In fact, the Miami Jewish Film Festival stands as the broadest international film festival in the Magic City second only to Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival. Featuring Florida Premieres, U.S. Premieres and even North American Premieres, the festival has grown into one of the largest Jewish film festivals in the world.
This year marks the festival’s 20th anniversary and includes 65 feature, documentary and short films from 20 countries, telling a variety of stories (contrary to popular perceptions, not all films Jewish film festivals feature are about the Holocaust). Festival Director Igor Shteyrenberg notes that 20 years marks an important juncture for the festival, particularly in its role in bringing attention to Israeli filmmakers.
“As with each Festival edition,” he says writing via email, “we are excited to explore new opportunities to continue our work to present the very best of world cinema as a means of promoting cross-cultural understanding. For four years now during my tenure, we have brought new Israeli Cinema to Miami. Israel has seen the burgeoning of a new generation of filmmakers who are willing to step out of the box and approach their audience in bold ways.”
The festival, in fact, will both open and close with films from Israel. It starts with The Women’s Balcony, which was the country’s biggest box office hit of this year. Closing night belongs to Israeli auteur Avi Nesher’s new film, Past Life. The closing night will also feature a live chorus performance, speaking to the talent of one of the film’s protagonists, a classical composer.
Under Shteyrenberg’s direction, supplemental music events have become de rigueur at the MJFF, and this year is no different. “This year we strived to create an enhanced experience for our audience to celebrate not only film’s ability to inspire new ideas but also encourage new experiences through special live music and dance performances,” he says. “We know of the richness of music culture in Miami, so we thought it was an interesting approach to bring together cinema and music. We are thrilled to partner with Dance Now!, the Amernet String Quartet, the Second Avenue Jewish Chorale, and the HaZamir choir, as we look forward to creating an environment that is more expansive than a movie theater and one which will renew and reinvigorate the audience’s engagement with the moving image art form.”
It’s a wide variety of music experiences, but of course the festival is primarily about the movies. Highlighting some of the variety in the program, Shteyrenberg notes, “the pitch-black humor and magisterial cinematography of the Romanian period drama Scarred Hearts, the Israeli incendiary coming-of-age film In Between, Russia’s astoundingly beautiful Oscar-entry Paradise, to our world premiere of the haunting Hungarian film 1945, which will be a surefire discovery for any fan of Ida (Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which received its Florida Premiere at MJFF 2014).”
Shteyrenberg, who attended several international film festivals to discover many films in this year’s program, including SXSW, Toronto, Jerusalem, Tribeca, prides himself in picking quality films. Last year’s world premiere of The Search for Israeli Cuisine found domestic distribution through the festival. It is currently slated for a spring release. Even this year’s world premiere of 1945, similarly found distribution because of MJFF’s industry ties.
For past festivals Shteyrenberg has even shown he has a knack for pushing this writer to see the right movies to introduce at the festival, Ida was one (‘Ida’ comes to South Florida in 35mm; My review appears in ‘Reverse Shot’), and then there was the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem shows how to make a powerful, resonant drama using one setting — a film review). Both ended up on in the top 10 of my end of year lists of great films (see their rankings here and here).
This year I have been asked to introduce the documentary S is for Stanley for obvious reasons. As a scholar on Kubrick’s movies, I have seen several documentaries about Stanley Kubrick. Asked what makes this documentary by Italian filmmaker Alex Infascelli special, Shteyrenberg responds, “For any fan or lay admirer of Stanley Kubrick, our premiere of S is for Stanley is nothing short of an absolute must … It is beautifully constructed, not as a chronological biography of a directorial legend but as an intimate exploration of his life and work. Coming away from S is for Stanley, you see a master filmmaker as he would likely have presented himself: a man as complex as his movies and the worlds they explored.”
There will be as many as 50 filmmakers and special guests at the festival this year. Among them are Academy Award-nominee Nancy Spielberg (sister to Steven) and Emmy Award-nominee Roberta Grossman, who will present a work-in progress preview of their documentary, Who Will Write Our History. This occasion will mark the first time any audience has had the chance to see footage from the film. It is the follow-up feature to their documentary Above & Beyond, which won the MJFF 2015 Audience Award. Also attending the Festival will be Goodwill Ambassador of Israel and sports legend Tal Brody for the Florida Premiere of the new film, On the Map, a film we had the opportunity to review already (Diplomacy through sports in On the Map — a documentary review).
Finally, Shteyrenberg wants to note that though the festival has plenty more to offer, it is truly something to experience year round. “With half a dozen annual series and as many community partnerships in place, we present, every month, several unique programs — from hidden film gems to Oscar contenders, encompassing the entire Greater Miami Community and that are free and open to the public.”
The Miami Jewish Festival unfolds over 13 days, from Jan. 12 – 26, 2017, across 10 South Florida venues. Check out their website for the full program details and tickets: miamijewishfilmfestival.org/films/2017. For a taste of what they have to offer, check out their trailer: