IN A CITY ALREADY BRIMMING WITH CULTURE AND THE ARTS, THE ANNUAL WILMINGTON JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL IS A STANDOUT CULTURAL SUCCESS STORY.
Since its inception, the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival has played in Thalian Hall’s main stage, one of Wilmington’s most beautiful and historic buildings. The organization operates with around 50 volunteers working year round to plan the annual spring festival, summer series and other special events. Debbie Smith is going into her third year as president and festival chair and has seen the attendance and interest in the festival increase over the years.
“It is an honor and privilege to represent the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival. Not only do we have the opportunity to bring our Jewish community together through our events, but we reach out to the non-Jewish community as well,” Smith saysid. “I feel strongly that the best way for people to get along is to have an understanding of and appreciation for other cultures. Through the medium of film we hope to educate and share our Jewish history and culture with the wider regional community.”
Each year the festival includes features, shorts and occasionally speakers accompanying the films. Three years ago a summer festival was added, and last November, the Wilmington Jewish Film brought the North Carolina premiere of Who Will Write Our History to the festival as a special event.
The festival got its start when Beverly Schoninger moved here from Denver, where the metropolitan area has a population approaching three million and like many American cities, has a Jewish film festival. Beverly thought it would be terrific if her new hometown of Wilmington had such a festival. She was referred to Bucky Stein and Frank Block who were both involved with the United Jewish Appeal of Wilmington. Stein is a well-known benefactor to the Wilmington community; one of his contributions is the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre in Thalian Hall. They were able to get seed money from the UJAW to begin the festival. Peggy Pancoe Rosoff joined Beverly as co-chair to work on publicizing the festival, and with that it was brought into being.
“Our mission is to show film of Jewish content as a benefit to our non-Jewish attendees to have a better understanding of Jewish culture,” Stein saysid. “We look at the storyline, we look at the cinematography, we look at the acting… we like to look at every facet of it, so the quality of the movie is very important to us.”
The festival celebrates Wilmington’s vibrant Jewish community and with that our region’s diversity. Each year’s festival offers a variety of features from the U.S. and other countries. Internationally acclaimed films from France, Israel, Poland and more, offer viewers the best of Jewish filmic creativity.
Ruth Ravitz Smith, a member of the board, sees the festival as a way to educate the community on the Jewish culture.
“I grew up in New York, and everybody knew each other’s religion and we all shared in each other’s,” Ravitz Smith says. “As I became an adult and moved to Wilmington, religion has nis a very important component of our community here., and I think a lot of people never knew people who were Jewish growing up, and they didn’t necessarily know our history, our culture, our food, our traditions.”
One of the festival’s goals this year is to increase both the number and the diversity of people attending.
“I do foresee this continuing to grow and expanded,” Ravitz Smith added. “This is a community that is very tied to the cultural arts… we are a film town, and this just reinforces a whole other segment of the film industry that people wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.” From a base of Jewish themes, both historic and modern, dramas, documentaries, and lighter films are brought together, making the festival a colorful experience. The emphasis is on both variety and excellence, so that the whole festival is rewarding and each individual film is an experience of its own. And for those who remember an oft-seen TV ad of yesteryear, we can say, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Jewish film.” The festival is meant for everyone. The Jewish experience is in many ways universal human experience, seen through a particular lens. Everyone is invited to enjoy!.
One of the most fun and unusual features of the Jewish Film Festival are the dinner and dessert receptions which follow the films. It’s a place to meet old friends, make new ones, snack on delicious treats, and in general just schmooze (Yiddish for relax and socialize). As part of the festival’s mission to serve and culturally enrich the greater Wilmington community, the festival has added educational daytime screenings of an age and theme- appropriate film for all New Hanover County 10th grade public school students, including transportation to Thalian Hall as an enhancement to their curriculum on the Holocaust. The festival inspires devotion among those who participate. Along with the many new people who have joined the expanding and thriving project, the original founders are still active and vital members. Bucky Stein had a high-profile role from the beginning, overseeing the selection of the films. Three years ago he turned that leadership over to newcomers Barry Salwen and Mimi Kessler, but Bucky remains active in film work, and is a generous donor to the festival.
The past few years have included a dinner catered by Peño Mediterranean Grill along with the opening day feature film. The owner, Jamal Haddad, is of Lebanese and Palestinian descent. This cross-cultural relationship further enhances the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival’s mission of promoting cultural diversity through higher visibility in Wilmington.
Last year due to COVID, the festival streamed three Jewish-themed films from across the globe, virtually. The films are still available to be watched online within the Wilmington area.
Visit the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival’s website at www.wilmingtonjff.org for more information, to view films.
The 2021 Jewish Film Festival will be held April 25-May 5.