A Fiendish Conversation with Seattle Jewish Film Festival's Pamela Lavitt
We talk to the festival's director about SJFF's role in the community, selection process, and more.
The annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival provides a cinematic tour of global Jewish and Israeli life—the ups, the downs, and plenty of laughs. The SJFF 2014 (March 1–9) focuses on "The Good, the Bad, the Funny" and includes The Zig Zag Kid, a coming-of-age film starring Isabella Rossellini, and Amy Winehouse concert documentary, and When Comedy Went to School, which documents the generation of comedians, including Jerry Lewis and Lenny Bruce, who all spent the summers of their youth at Upstate New York summer camps. There's plenty to appeal to Hasidic Jews and Gentiles alike.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Pamela Lavitt, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and cultural arts director at Stroum Jewish Community Center, about crafting the SJFF's new home base, the fest's selection process, and Game of Thrones.
What aspect of this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival are you most excited about?
I think that we have an incredible opportunity—with the synergy between the Jewish community center, the film festival, and the new cultural arts facility here—to ensure that we are serving the community in the best way possible, and that means intergenerationally, interfaith, diversity, bringing people together for something new and exciting. We have a closing centerpiece, Road to Eden, filmed by a local producer—Jordan Passon is a local Microsoftie and her brother Doug is the film director. Road to Eden's subject is musican Dan Nichols. Anybody who knows who Debbie Friedman was to the Jewish community, understands that she was a leading light in the Jewish music world, and Dan Nichols in some ways walks in those shoes. He is a community organizer, he uses music to engage campers and give kids a sense of confidence and identity and build bridges of understanding in the American South between kids who have no sense of who they are in their everyday lives. This will be only the second time that this film has premiered in the US with a concert by Nichols and his band Eighteen, and it is an all-ages concert. In Jewish tradition, eighteen or “chai” is the number for good luck, but it also stands for life, so I think that is sort of the symbolism.
How does selection process for the festival work?
I think people would be very surprised at how complex and rigorous the selection process is. We have a committee of volunteers, approximately 25 people, who are deeply passionate about film. Many of them are volunteers at other film festivals, screeners at other film festivals, or programmers, but most of them are people who have loved the festival for many years and are willing to sit down and watch anywhere in the ballpark of five to ten films a week to help ensure the best selection. There is a pretty rigorous set of criteria for how people rate films, it is not just a Siskel and Ebert “thumbs up, thumbs down.” It’s based on the potential for dialogue: The artistic quality, the subject matter’s uniqueness, and just an overall satisfaction in the viewing experience. We love picking out films that come from unique and small countries. We sometimes will champion the underdog or the little guy; like if there’ a film from Uganda, like we had a couple years back, or Nigeria. Our role as an independent film festival is not only to select the best and most satisfying films that we can, but to ensure that there’s a good representation of documentaries and fun, frivolous films. I think a lot of people think that a Jewish film festival is a heavy film festival, but this year’s theme especially—"The Good, the Bad, the Funny"—is meant to tip off that this is going to be a fun festival, and that it’s really about the pleasure and enjoyment of soaking up global Jewish and Israeli culture.
What’s your favorite film that you’ve seen in the past year?
Hmmm. It’s hard to ask somebody who’s so mired and deeply invested in the festival to toll out of that. I think, if anything, I mostly binge watch television instead of watching films, because there’s so much film watching in my life and it’s pretty satisfying escapism. I’ve been insanely watching Game of Thrones. In this film festival, The ZigZag Kid, to me, is the whole package. I honestly think, at this moment, that is my favorite film. It’s a glorious film that I think everyone will enjoy: It has star power, it has razzle-dazzle, it has playfulness. I can only look so far as my nose at the moment, but that’s what’s coming up the pike for me.
You’ve been working as the fest’s director for ten years. What’s the biggest change the festival has undergone over that time?
First of all, the (festival's tie to) Stroum Jewish Community Center. The synergy of its mission in terms of strengthening Jewish life and creating outstanding programs and partnerships that, in essence, inspire the connection to the Jewish community. That to me is the biggest change that has happened in the past two years; this is only our second year as a JCC program. And now we’ve been given the gift—year-round—of a 350 seat, beautiful Dolby Digital cinema. It’s a gorgeous space for people to experience encores of the Jewish Film Festival, extended dialogs, social programs, and partnership programs year round. We’ve been wandering Jews basically for the past ten years [laughs]: Going to SIFF, going to AMC, going to Cinerama. And all of a sudden, we have a home; a real home. I think that’s a major change.
The second thing is, I think that the technology has changed so considerably. And with that technology change, we’re also seeing the films themselves are more prolific. The ability to see more films, to view more films, to considering more films, for filmmakers of all ages to submit their films through streaming technology.
The third thing is sensibility. We’re seeing a lot more films that are really gorgeous films about little known stories. I’m amazed at films like Brave Miss World this year, the Joe Papp film (Joe Papp in Five Acts), the Amy Winehouse film (Amy Winehouse). These are big names in the news, but we actually have filmmakers that are following people for five, six, eight years. Some of them are not Jewish filmmakers, for example, Cecilia Peck, who is the daughter of the great Gregory Peck, is the director of Brave Miss World. You’re getting directors who are not Jewish making Jewish subject matter films because those stories are important. But you’re also getting a proliferation of award winning Israeli filmmaking. And sensibility films, which is that they’re Jewish by a Woody Allen sense of things; there’s a lot more tacit suggestions, not just Holocaust dramas and films about subject matters that would only appeal to a small audience.
What do you feel like is the mission of SJFF?
Well for 17 years the film festival had the mission of human rights interfaith dialogue, and using film as a way or launching point for engaging the wider community into the diverse mosaic of Jewish life in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not an enclave experience, it’s about great independent film that has meaning beyond the Jewish community, but it has especially important meaning that filmmakers are Jewish or the subject matters are Jewish. So the mission of the festival is to build bridges of understanding in our community and to demonstrate the complexity of Jewish and Israeli life to the general community and to be a resource for low-barrier, positive cultural expression of Jewish self. It gives us that good, you know, bagel and lox shot in the arm of Jewish culture.
Seattle Jewish Film Festival
Mar 1–9, Visit website for venues, $12–$25; festival passes $100–$250