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The Weinstein JCC’s 14th annual Israeli and Jewish film festival coming in mid-January.

click to enlarge A still from "Cinema Sabaya" which screens Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre.

A still from "Cinema Sabaya" which screens Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre.

Thomas Jefferson may have designed and resided at Monticello, but it was a Jewish family, the Levys, who owned and carefully preserved Monticello for nearly a century, a far longer tenure than Jefferson or his descendants.

With antisemitism on the rise worldwide, Steven Pressman’s documentary “The Levys of Monticello,” seems particularly relevant as the centerpiece of the Weinstein Jewish Community Center’s 14th Annual Israeli and Jewish Film Festival. The film focuses on the story of the Levy family’s 89-year ownership and preservation of Monticello, while also telling a broader story about the antsemitism that runs throughout American history, right up to the present day; at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, groups chanted racist and antisemitic slogans.

Because the film addresses the pivotal role that enslaved people played at Monticello during both Jefferson’s and Levy’s years as owners, the post-film discussion will bring together filmmaker Pressman and Phyllis K. Leffler, emerita professor in the department of history at the University of Virginia to answer audience questions.

When the Israeli Film Festival began 14 years ago, the Israeli film industry was still in its infancy, so Jewish Community Centers across the country supported the fledgling industry by showing its films to their communities. Right from the start, Richmond’s Weinstein JCC played a vital role in spotlighting and supporting Israel’s films and filmmakers with its Israeli Film Festival.

Over a dozen years later, the Israeli film industry is thriving and the Weinstein JCC’s film festival has recently expanded to include international Jewish films along with Israeli films. “The majority of the films remain Israeli,” explains Leslie McGuigan, the Weinstein JCC’s director of community engagement. “In doing so, we’re able to provide an even greater array of films relevant to the Jewish community while still supporting the Israeli film industry.”

With its broad selection, the festival aims to accomplish multiple goals. In addition to encouraging Jewish and Israeli artistic expression, it also seeks to foster dialogue, debate, and education while nurturing creativity in the arts through films that represent a broad spectrum of thought and opinion. Significantly, it strives to provide an understanding of Israel’s history and an exploration of Israel’s social and cultural diversity.

The film selection committee screens films throughout the year, working to create a festival lineup that will have wide appeal to Richmond audiences. “Not only do they try to balance the films to include various genres, but they also take into account other things,” McGuigan says. “Things such as which films have been nominated or have won Ophir Awards --Israel’s version of the Oscars-- length of the film, subtitles or not, and to which audiences the film would appeal most.”

In 2021 and 2022, the global pandemic meant that the Israeli and Jewish Film Festival, like so many film festivals, was presented entirely virtually. Fortunately, film is a cultural medium that lends itself well to a virtual platform. “Audiences enjoyed the opportunity to watch the films from the comfort of their living rooms,” McGuigan says. “While we’ve come a long way since the pandemic first hit, we recognize that people may still prefer to watch the films at home for a variety of reasons, one of which may be to stay safe from the risk of COVID.” This year’s festival offers five live screenings at various venues and two virtual screenings.

Engaging filmgoers in conversation about the films they’ve just seen is a key focus for the festival’s organizers and a reminder of why the festival matters. Many films are followed by talkback discussions with someone involved in making the film or subject-matter experts who are able to provide information that helps audiences to connect and better understand the relevant points of the film.

click to enlarge A still from the film "Valiant Hearts,"  which screens Sunday, Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. at the VMFA's Leslie Cheek Theater.
  • A still from the film "Valiant Hearts," which screens Sunday, Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. at the VMFA's Leslie Cheek Theater.

Formerly, when screening “On the Map,” a documentary about how the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team toppled the four-time defending European champions, the Soviet Red Army team from Moscow, on route to winning the European Cup basketball championship, a talkback followed. Israeli film director, Dani Menkin, told audiences about the players such as Tal Brody who made Israeli sports history. “Funny enough, one of the members of our community grew up with Tal Brody and was able to share his story with Menkin as well as the film audience,” recalls McGuigan. “It’s those kinds of moments that make people feel engaged and help to build community.”

Another means of building community is in the choice to screen films at various venues. Doing so allows the film festival to reach audiences that would not otherwise come and see the films. “Through our partnership with the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Science Museum, we’ve been able to reach beyond the Jewish community,” says McGuigan. “That way, we can provide educational, social and cultural experiences that are relevant to others in the Richmond community, too.”

The 14th Annual Israeli & Jewish Film Festival will be held Jan. 19-29, virtual and in person, at various venues. To learn more and for tickets, visit: 14th Annual Israeli & International Jewish Film Festival - Weinstein JCC.

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