There are very few Russian films on the Jewish theme - festival director - ForumDaily
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There are very few Russian films on Jewish themes - festival director

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32-year-old Igor Steyrenberg, who runs the Miami Jewish Film Festival, was born in Chernivtsi, in Western Ukraine. Photo: Caroline Twohill

19 is the Miami Jewish Film Festival, which will end this week, collected a lot of interesting paintings on Jewish and Israeli themes. Among them is the film by actress Natalie Portman, who brought her debut directorial work entitled “A Tale of Love and Darkness” to Florida and Atom Egoyan’s “Remember” about two elderly Jews looking for the killer of their family members in Auschwitz. January 27 marks the International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp.

In addition, directors of the Israeli “new wave” - Laura Bialis, Avishai Sivan and Minsk native Evgeniy Ruman - are actively represented at the current film festival. The program also includes a film in Russian - “Song of Songs” by Ukrainian director Eva Neiman based on the work of Sholom Aleichem. The film, which received the jury prize at the Odessa Film Festival in 2015, will be shown today.

32-year-old director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival Igor Steyrenberg is a native of the Soviet Union. He was born in the Ukrainian Chernivtsi, and, according to him, is still close to Russian and Ukrainian culture. In an interview with ForumDaily, Steyrenberg said that in recent years, the Miami Film Festival has become one of the three largest Jewish festivals in the world - after Atlanta and San Francisco.

Igor, how and due to what did the attendance of your festival grow, which, judging by its name, is aimed mainly at a Jewish audience?

Initially, it was a festival exclusively for a Jewish audience, a maximum of about 4 of thousands of people came to it. However, in the first year of operation, following the results of the 2014 festival of the year, I managed to increase attendance to 9 thousands of people, and these were not only Jews. Last year, we already had 18 thousands of visitors, and according to the results of this festival, we expect to reach 25 thousands of viewers. The fact that in such a short period of time we were able to increase the attendance of the festival so much indicates that Miami is experiencing a period of cultural renaissance. Interest in cinema is at a very high level.

In addition, we managed to prove that if there are Jewish themes in the films, this does not mean that such films are interesting only to Jews. These may be films about Jews, but they are attractive to a wider audience — Latin American, African American, Russian-speaking, and all the other inhabitants of this multi-ethnic city.

Whether you are a Jew or not, you should like the film that we show. This is a festival for those who love art and love challenges of one kind or another. Our festival does not exist for the sake of entertainment, since there is enough entertainment in and without Miami, but in order to offend every spectator for living.


Eva Neumann's film shows a Jewish town in the early 10th century, where XNUMX-year-old Shimek and Buzya live. Photo: screenshot from the film “Song of Songs” / MJFF

What is this relationship with the festival viewer? How exactly do you select pictures?

We demonstrated this through a number of initiatives, including non-festival ones. For example, when we tried to reach audiences regardless of nationality, we held an event as part of Pride Month, celebrated by the US LGBT community in June. We organized a screening of the Kenyan film “Stories of Our Lives” about LGBT people [The film received a jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival - approx. ForumDaily]. In this picture there was no Jewish subject matter, but there was Jewish value, and it lay in the subject of repression.

In Kenya, you can lose your life for being a homosexual, that is, for your identity. The same thing happened to Jews during Nazi times. As sad as it may be, history repeats itself from time to time. And it is our duty to talk about such horrific incidents that are happening these days.

The point is not only to show only famous paintings. We have already done this, and, among other things, were the first in Florida to show the film Ida [Polish director Pavel Pavlikovsky], which won an Oscar two years ago as the best foreign film. And for us it is important that we deserve the respect of our industry thanks to the program policy of our festival.

This year we decided to do more by reflecting the program of world conflicts that occur today, especially in the Middle East. We decided to introduce the endlessly gifted and rapidly developing directors of the Israeli “new wave”. The focus of this festival is on the new Israeli cinema.

The program of this festival is only one film in Russian. How important is the Russian-speaking audience for your festival?

As you understand, being the director of the festival, I cannot create films myself and hope for those who create them. We were very glad to have such a wonderful film like Eva Neiman's Song of Songs. This work shows a real picture of Ukraine's distant past. My family lived in Ukraine and, I am sure, my ancestors went through everything that the director talks about. I felt this connection immediately when I saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival.

A couple of years ago we showed a film in Russian “The Journey of Igor and the Cranes,” directed by Yevgeny Ruman, who was born in Minsk and immigrated to Israel. This year in our program his new work is the psychological thriller “The Man in the Wall”, made in the style of Roman Polanski.

Our task is to reflect the voices of the whole world. This year, paintings from 20 countries are presented. Who would have thought that the Jewish subject would be so extensive, but it turned out to be so. We want each film that we show to inspire the audience to tolerate and understand each other, to accept different cultures that are able to unite people.

It turns out that there are some difficulties in the selection of Russian films using Jewish themes?

Unfortunately, such films can be counted on the fingers. We look through the pictures all over the world in order to find those in which the Jewish themes are somehow represented. In total, before the current festival, we considered about 25 thousands of paintings. And only one had a Russian-Jewish connection. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to explain the reasons for this, since I am a former Russian immigrant, now a US citizen, and too divorced from the current state of affairs.

With some Russian directors, such as Andrei Zvyagintsev, we see a desire to tell individual stories of people, extremely expressive stories. But, again, these are isolated cases. As a person who loves cinema, I would like to see more works by Russian directors.

For my part, I can only provide a platform for seeing their work. Fortunately, our festival has not yet received failures from directors, whose pictures we would like to show.


Steyrenberg sees a lot of potential in niche content aimed at wider masses. Photo: Caroline Twohill

Now in parallel with your forum is the festival of Jewish cinema in New York. Are there any differences between them?

We are not competing for each other, because we have completely different platforms. For example, the New York festival has a more experimental program. Their films are broadcast in the Lincoln Center itself, so, as you understand, they can experiment with different genres. As for us, the aesthetics of our festival can not be experimental, it is more recognizable. Of course, between all the festivals of Jewish cinema there are coincidences in the films shown. And I think our audience expects it. For example, those who cannot go to the festival in Atlanta or New York, can see this or that picture here. But such intersections of programs are extremely rare.

How many premiere shows have you managed to collect this year?

We show quite a lot of paintings that cannot be seen anywhere else in the United States. One such film this year is Baba June, which was nominated by Israel for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film [picture of director Yuval Delshad, a native of Iran, tells the story of a family of Iranian Jews who moved to Israel - approx. ForumDaily]. This is the premiere picture for the East Coast USA. In addition, we have the very first US screenings of Natalie Portman's “A Tale of Love and Darkness” directorial debut in a work by the classic Israeli writer Amos Oz. I want to note that Portman herself speaks in a Hebrew film.

This is a very beautiful and deep story, and we are very proud that we were able to organize the premiere of the film at our festival. Natalie, who had shot several short films before, had long been carrying out the idea of ​​a feature film, it was very important for her to implement this project. You may think in advance that Portman is still an actress and it is unlikely that her first major work was a success, but you will be surprised at how good it turned out when you watch the movie.

You have already touched on the subject of your Soviet past. How does it help you now in the work in the film industry?

I, like my parents, was born into a Jewish family in Chernivtsi, in Western Ukraine. I am very proud of this, but unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to return to my native place since moving to the USA in the early 90s - I was still little then. However, I feel connected to Ukrainian and Russian culture. I am very sad about what is happening now between two peoples close to me. Human life is priceless, and I hope that peace is still possible, that a way out of this situation will be found. I still call myself a “Russian American.”

My father and I are still reviewing old Soviet films, and I am glad that my family has given me such extensive knowledge of Russian history. It seems to me that this helps me build today some bridges between different cultures, including with the participation of Russian-speaking immigrants in America. I very much hope that in the coming years there will be more Russian films on Jewish themes that we could demonstrate at our festival. A large community of American-speaking Russian-speaking Jews will be truly pleased.

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