'What Better Way To Reaffirm Life': Austin Jewish Film Festival Gets Bigger While Going Virtual
“This is year eighteen, which is an auspicious year in the Jewish world,” says David Finkel, the director of the Austin Jewish Film Festival. This year marks the eighteenth annual iteration of the festival, which is – like most 2020 festivals – being held almost entirely online; Finkel says they’re trying to see the positive in the change in format this year.
“In Hebrew, there are no numbers – letters take the job of numbers,” he explains. “And so what that means is that any number can become a word and any word has a numerical meaning. And so the number eighteen translates to Chai, or the world for ‘life’ in Hebrew, and that’s a very auspicious thing. And so this is our eighteenth year, and what we’re saying is what better way to reaffirm life than to have a great festival?”
This year’s fest isn’t entirely virtual – there are secure, socially distant drive-in events for opening night and closing night – but it is mostly virtual. Finkel says that making the decision early on to embrace the digital format has actually allowed the festival to grow this year. “Part of this is really… trying to turn things on its head instead of just saying how do we just do what we did last year in some virtual fashion?” Finkel says. “It was really looking at what are the opportunities that present themselves? And we realized that once we put in place our video-on-demand platform, we weren’t restricted to the number of theatrical slots that we would normally have. Last year we had approximately fifteen feature films and some shorts. This year we’re going to have more than seventy films. Because we can with a virtual platform.”
This year’s virtual format means that festival goers can, in a way, curate the festival themselves. Instead of set screening times, audiences can pick the movie they want to watch when they want to watch it. Finkel says that means the festival can also expand its offerings a bit more thematically. “Part of that also means that we can do edgier programming,” he says. “We can do the same sort of great… you know, I’ll say ‘normal’ films that we show, but we’ve got some things that are pretty weird out there as well, and, you know, that’s fun.”
Finkel points out that the festival is welcoming to all audiences. “One of the things about being the Austin Jewish Film Festival is that some people go, well I’m not Jewish. For your radio audience, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says ‘May The Force Be With Jew,’ and it says underneath that ‘For Jew And You Too.’ That’s our little motto. And the point here is that the films all have some sort of Jewish or Israeli story or connection, but those are really universal stories.”
Showing films to audiences is obviously a huge part of any film festival, but it’s not the whole experience. Festivals usually also feature discussions and interactions between audience members and content creators, and this year’s AJFF is working to make sure those experiences happen this year too. Opening and closing nights will feature Q&A sessions with the directors of the featured films, and there will also be ways for festival goers to connect with each other. “We are planning a virtual get together where we’re going to have some fun entertainment,” Finkel says. “The emphasis of that is going to be much more on a social aspect of bringing people together to have a program where they can, as we would say in Yiddish, kibitz with each other, and maybe do some fun activities. And maybe you’ve got to bring your own drinks to that one.”