In past summers, Tanglewood and most other cultural organizations went dark on Mondays. In a clever move more than 30 years ago, the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival swooped in and grabbed that Monday spot to claim their culture-vulture audience. It’s become, as Tevye would say, tradition, so just because there’s this thing called COVID and most nights are dark and no one’s going out much, why should that change anything? Mondays and the BJFF go together like lox and bagels, and the movies will go on this summer as always. They’ll just be virtual.
Thirty-four years ago, Margie Metzger volunteered to start a small Jewish film festival as a fundraiser for the Hebrew school at Knesset Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Pittsfield. The festival became so popular that it was eventually moved from the synagogue to the Duffin Theater at Lenox Memorial Middle/High School. The festival has sold out every year. In fact, with 4,000 people walking through the doors every summer, it was not uncommon to be shut out of a ticket, and parking could be a problem.
That won’t be an issue this year. Judy Seaman, who took over the artistic director position in 2017, looked into going virtual in early March. “I had a feeling this virus was not going to go away in the summer, and I felt responsible to our patrons,” she says. Steve Rosenthal, who works alongside Seaman, adds, “It’s a fundraiser —we couldn’t let the Hebrew school down.”
Seaman, who was a film editor for news and TV networks in New York before moving to the Berkshires in 2010, says she found that some filmmakers and distributors didn’t want their film on the video format — too much pirating going around. So she had to find a company that would act as the festival’s video platform. She and Rosenthal chose to go with Shift 72, a video streaming service that works with some of the biggest festivals.
“We’re glad we didn’t cancel the festival; we got a positive response right away,” Seaman says. What’s more, the festival’s important underwriters have returned, making it more possible for the festival to continue. A decision was made to lower ticket prices to $5 per film (“people are used to Netflix or free movies online”), and the usual printed program has been converted to a downloadable pdf.
There will be the usual two different films each Monday, scheduled at the regular times of 4 and 8 p.m. They’ll be made available one hour before the scheduled time to 14 days after, with one viewing per ticket. Also preserved is one of the highlights of the BJFF: the post-film talk backs with directors and actors, now via Zoom.
The quality of the films remains as high as ever, as does the diversity of subject matter. Seaman is particularly enthused about “Broken Mirrors,” which features Shira Haas, the luminous actress who starred in the recent Netflix series “Unorthodox” and “Shtisel.” Rosenthal points to “Golda,” a documentary about the Israeli prime minister, which contains some riveting clips never seen before.
Like everyone involved in pivoting their programming this year, Seaman, Rosenthal, and their large team of “helpers” have had to scramble. But they are making the new virtual venue as seamless as possible for their ticket purchasers, even putting up a how-to video as well as a way to test their computer connection by watching a short film, “Grandma Rose.”
The box office opened just last week, but ticket sales already have been brisk. Summer residents who haven’t come back to the Berkshires because of the pandemic are able to take advantage of the virtual festival, and word has spread. Rosenthal says they’ve been getting registrations from all over the country.
“Now that we’ve established a relationship with the streaming service, we have the opportunity to work with them throughout the year,” Seaman says. “We’re thinking about doing monthly screenings to keep people engaged.”
A new tradition, perhaps?
Berkshire Jewish Film Festival
July 6-August 10, 2020
Posted Jun 17, 2020By Cori Urban | Special to The Republican
The Berkshire Jewish Film Festival, one of the longest-running film festivals in the United States, is moving online this summer.
The change was made because of the coronavirus pandemic and concern for the safety and well-being of patrons.
"We’ve worked very hard to produce the Virtual BJFF 2020 and everything is in place,” said Judy A. Seaman, artistic director.
The usual venue, The Duffin Theater, seats 500 people. “We couldn’t imagine risking the health of our patrons, many of whom are in their seventies and above,” she said, referring to social distancing requirements.
“Because producing a film festival such as ours requires enormous work and expense, we had to choose one path and stay with it. Even if social distancing requirements change in Massachusetts before the opening of the festival, we are staying the course,” she said. “We’ve heard from many of our patrons who are thrilled that they can watch films and participate in our live talkbacks with directors while staying safe in their homes.”
Last year the festival had more than 4,000 attendees.
The festival’s 34th season will offer films from throughout the world examining Jewish history, heritage and culture. They will be available online on six consecutive Mondays from July 6 through Aug. 10 at 4 and 8 p.m.
“While we choose films that highlight Jewish content and values, we feel that all of the films in our line-up speak to global and humanitarian issues that people everywhere can relate to,” Seaman said.
This summer audiences will find engaging and relevant films as well as films that lift the spirit and make them laugh. The films range from serious historical documentaries such as Holy Silence, Ma'abarot and Golda, to serious personal documentaries such as Rewind as well as more humorous personal stories such as Latter Day Jew, to touching narrative films appropriate for children (Igor and the Crane's Journey, Belle and Sebastian) and comedies such as Hunting Elephants.
“We are excited to be showing Oliver Sacks: His Own Life and will be engaging with director Ric Burns in a live talkback,” Seaman said.
There will be other live talkbacks that will be accessible to ticket buyers.
This year ticket prices have been lowered to $5 per film with the option of an additional donation online or by mail to Knesset Israel/BJFF, 16 Colt Road, Pittsfield, MA 01201.
For more information call 413-445-4872 ext. 25.
Access to the complete program, schedule of films with trailers, online box office and e-newsletter is at berkshirejewishfilmfestival.org.