Interview: Ilya Tovbis on the DC Jewish Film Festival

Posted on January 31, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Ilya Tovbis is director of the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, which will take place from February 24-March 6, 2016. In an interview, he talked about what it means to be a “Jewish movie.” “It’s on one hand easy and on the other hand a much more complex question. The easy answer for us is that some aspect of the content has to be about the Jewish experience and that could be cultural or historical, it could be character driven but it has be something that has even if not the central characters of or the central theme of the film the film will not be the same without that element. So sometimes obviously it’s on the nose and very clear and it’s entirely about let’s say “Shtisel,” which is about an Orthodox family in Jerusalem, very clearly black hat Jewish through and through. And then there are other stories. This year we have a whole sidebar of films around artists and many of them are Jewish in a more cultural or secular way and perhaps not even the main driver of the art form they are making but without their Jewishness and Jewish identities that they bring to the artwork.

Tovbis said they reviewed around 1300 films, and, as happens every year, some themes emerge. This year happened to have several outstanding films about artists, so that became one of the categories selected for special attention. “The artist category is pretty broad, so we have dancers, we do visual artists, we have poets, we have some musical artists, graphic, novels, so it’s really a bit all over the map.” Another focus this year is LGBTQ films. “So something else is important to us and I think you would find this at most major Jewish festivals is a diversity of mission and so for us the notion of expanding and challenging what the Jewish identity is is paramount in everything we do. It’s really the core of what we do whether we’re looking at Diaspora Jews or visions of a Jewish identity that don’t conform to perhaps the norm that everyone would put out there.

Some of the films are perhaps more of what you would expect in LGBT lineup and other ones are more unusual. ‘Marzipan Flowers‘ is a sort of fun transgender relationship doesn’t really conform, even the way it’s made, very low-budget. I’m very excited to share that. We are presenting most of the films with some form of discussion though sometimes it’s more focused on other content in the film, sometimes it’s more focused on LGBTQ content. So we’re going to have with us for example for ‘The Good Son’ the director and producer Shirley Berkowitz. We will be having a professor speaking about “Sunday Bloody Sunday” because are looking at that in light of John Schlesinger’s entire career. Barney Frank is going to be here with his husband as well to discuss the documentary, ‘Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank.’ The discussion will be more about pushing legislative agenda and politics. This is Washington!”

One film of particular interest on the schedule is “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” based on the book by Amos Oz. It is the writing and directing debut of Oscar-winner Natalie Portman, who also stars.

“It’s a lovely film based a major pillar of modern Israeli literature, a very personal tale that deals with his mother which Natalie Portman plays in the film. There’s some elements where she takes liberties with the original material but it does stay pretty close to it and I think it’s a lovely film. I think there is some incredible assuredness. Natalie Portman has been around show business for a long time so even though it’s her first time directorial effort I think she takes a lot of risks. The story focuses on a mother making up these sort of fanciful tales in order to escape a bleaker reality which she finds herself in both in terms of a personal depression and what’s happening more broadly nationally as the state of Israel comes into a more modern being and then also she has some issues with her husband and so a lot of the tales are sort of interwoven with these really almost magical realism shots and stories and I think the way thats done is just exquisite and very gentle in the film.”

The festival’s visionary award will be presented to the actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, with a screening of his film, “Avalon,” written and directed by Barry Levinson, based on his memories of his family in 1940’s Baltimore. “Most of the event is really centered around a lengthy Q and A on stage really about the full body of work.” Another highlight is a musical program, a live musical performance that is a musical tribute to the jazzy soundtracks of animator Max Fleischer’s surreal, wacky and Yiddish-inflected Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons of the 1930’s. Tobvis says, “It’s a really fun zany kind of insane project I am curious myself to see.”

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