Jewish Film Festival Opening With Topical Movies, Increased Security: “Can’t Let Terrorists Win”

Jewish Film Festival Opening With Topical Movies, Increased Security: “Can’t Let Terrorists Win”

Austin Jewish Film Festival director David Finkel was hosting a visiting Israeli student in his home when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel and murdered more than 1,300 people on Oct. 7. The student learned the next day that his grandfather had been killed, and his grandmother and uncle were kidnapped. It’s just one of the many personal connections that people associated with the festival, now in its 21st year, have to the horrors of that day, and to the ongoing fighting in Gaza.

There’s a cliche for times like these: “The show must go on.” But what about now? And what Finkel and the other festival organizers ultimately decided was: especially now.

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“One of the conversations was: Is it appropriate for us to go ahead?” Finkel recalls. “And the prevailing feeling was that you don’t want to let the terrorists win, essentially. You want to continue living your life — which is very much how the Israelis go about it. Also, I think it’s an incredible opportunity because we have a lot of films that sort of showcase different aspects of life in Israel. There’s an opportunity — particularly for people outside the Jewish community who want to connect — to come to see a film and learn something they may not otherwise have known about.”

There will be some changes, such as enhanced security (though Finkel understandably does not wish to discuss what the festival is specifically doing on that front). The Anti-Defamation League reported last week a 388 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents compared to the same period a year ago, and that’s just in the U.S. There have been reports from Western countries around the world of an increase in harassment and violence against Jews.

“Security is definitely on everybody’s mind,” Finkel says. “Anytime the heat level increases in the Middle East, it unfortunately has a way of coming around to being focused on the Jewish community — and, in fairness, also on the Muslim community.”

While security is boosted, the AJFF always requires at least some degree of additional protection that’s unusual for a film festival. “Even when times are quiet, we have to have security at any venue where we show a film,” Finkel says. “I partner very closely with our local queer film festival (aGLIFF), the Hispanic Film Festival (Cine Las Americas), the Indian Film Festival (Indie Meme), Asian-American Film Festival (AAAFF), and one of the things that unites us, unfortunately, is our communities have all been targets of hate. And yet we’re the only one that I’m aware of that needs full-time security at all the events that we do, which is a significant budget line for us.”

Asked if he’s personally been disappointed with Hollywood’s arguably tepid reaction to the Oct. 7 attack — which resulted in some celebrities showing support for Israel, while others calling for a ceasefire that Biden administration officials and other Middle East experts say would only benefit Hamas — Finkel replies: “Yes, it is disappointing to see that there aren’t more people that come out and clearly said that this is a terrible disaster for the people of Israel and to show support for civilians, even babies and grandparents, being murdered,” Finkel says. “When there are disasters in different parts of the world, you see celebrities and others putting flags on their social media profiles. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily agree with all the politics that exist in that country — they’re showing support for the people. Yet you don’t see that same reaction to what happened Oct. 7. One can be anti-Hamas, a terrorist organization, and it doesn’t mean that you are against the Palestinian people. It’s a shame more people haven’t done that in this case.”

Finkel drew a comparison to the massive outpouring of support for the passing of Friends star Matthew Perry this week. “It’s untimely, it’s sad for his family, his colleagues, and the public,” he says. “But I was thinking, ‘Gosh, why is that so far up the news chain compared to what’s happening in the rest of the world?’”

To be clear, the festival is not a political event. The films chosen represent a diversity of viewpoints, and organizers refuse any title that one would consider outright propaganda. Several titles this year have taken on added significance, however, in light of recent events:

A Tale of Four Minorities is a documentary from director David Deri showing the lives of four families in Israel — a secular gay family in Tel Aviv, a Jewish Ultra-Orthodox family in Beit Shemesh, a Muslim family in Taibeh and a Jewish Religious family in the West Bank. “His film was about that and how those different segments see each other and whether they’re possibly able to come together,” says Finkel.

No Name Restaurant, from directors Stefan Sarazin and Peter Keller, is a road comedy about an ultra orthodox Brooklyn Jew stranded in the Sinai desert whose only hope for survival is a grumpy Bedouin.

The Boy is a short that, Finkel says, “is about a father and son from the Gaza strip dealing with the post-traumatic stress of living under the constant threat of these red alerts and missiles flying overhead.” The short was made by an award-winning young filmmaker, Yahav Winner. “He and his wife just came back from a festival where she had been presenting a film when the (Oct. 7) attack happened. He delayed the attacker so his wife and child could get away, and unfortunately was murdered,” Finkel says. “It’s life and art tragically colliding.” The festival has posted The Boy online for free, and it’s embedded below.

Yet the festival’s biggest expected draw is a far lighter project: Remembering Gene Wilder, director Ron Frank’s look at the beloved actor’s life and work. “It’s such a beautiful film that’s half about stuff you already know like Young Frankenstein and (playing) Willy Wonka, but half of it is stuff that you don’t know about him,” Finkel says.

The festival runs from Nov. 2-12. Attendees of the festival might notice there’s an empty chair that has photos of the kidnapped grandmother and uncle of the student Finkel was housing: “It’s a reminder of all the people that are still captive and need to come home.”