JFilm festival shares Jewish culture, stories from around the world


Image courtesy of Film Pittsburgh

Hosted by Film Pittsburgh, the 28th annual JFilm Festival will take place virtually from April 22 until May 2, featuring 18 American and international films that highlight Jewish faith and culture.

By Hayley Lesh, Staff Writer

The iconic face of Howie Mandel lights up the computer screen as the documentary “Howie Mandel: But Enough About Me” begins to play. This year, the JFilm Festival will carry on its legacy even online.

Hosted by Film Pittsburgh, the 28th annual JFilm Festival will take place virtually from April 22 until May 2. The festival features 18 American and international films that highlight Jewish faith and culture. This year’s line up includes a variety of films like “Sublet,” “Thou Shalt Not Hate” and “Upheaval,” and features directors such as Sam Hobkinson and Talya Lavie. Patrons have the option to purchase tickets for a single screening or multiple films.

While the event normally happens in-person, organizers plan to host Q&As and post-screening discussions online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Filmgoers will also have the opportunity to vote virtually for their top films at the festival.

In order to highlight a diverse film selection, the JFilm festival does not follow strict criteria for its film selection. According to Kathryn Spitz Cohan, Film Pittsburgh’s executive director, film previewers search for a connection to Jewish culture.

“All the films have some relationship to Judaism, whether it’s significant, or whether it’s tangential,” Spitz Cohan said. “Although the Israeli films are almost always digital films about people, they’re speaking Hebrew. That’s enough for us to be included in the Jewish Film Festival.” 

According to Alison Shapiro, the chair of JFilm, the festival prides itself on its inclusive film selection, and she agrees with Spitz Cohan that the festival curates a broad range of films for viewers to watch.

“It enables our content to be much more broad,” Shapiro said. “We will show everything from Holocaust films to U.S. films. We work very hard to strike a balance between Jewish history, Jewish art, Jewish culture and Jewish content.” 

Selecting films to showcase at the JFilm Festival is not an easy task, according to Shapiro. She said curating the festival requires the work of several staff members and volunteers to preview each film and organize the festival’s events. 

“There’s a variety of people that work with us locally to preview and provide their feedback that helps us curate our selections,” Shapiro said. “We have developed certain criteria that we look for and we’re trying to maintain a really diverse set of film previewers”.

But adapting to the festival’s completely online format has posed some challenges. Spitz Cohan said organizing the JFilm festival has been a learning process. 

“We are learning a completely different way of doing business, so we had no experience at all in virtual programming,” Spitz Cohan said. “Just learning how to do that seems like an entirely new job or at least a new part of our job. I’m glad that we are in a medium that lends itself to be shared digitally.” 

Meanwhile, filmmakers and directors also needed to adapt to a virtual landscape. Barry Avrich directed his documentary “Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me” as the COVID-19 pandemic began. The documentary centers on Howie Mandel and his mental health struggles, as well as his career in comedy.

Avrich said his friendship with Mandel inspired him to direct the film, and he thinks it provides an insightful look at Mandel’s life. 

“It was going to be a candid look at his life and show people a different side. So I loved doing it because for Howie, it’s all about his audience and his family,” Avrich said. “It’s not about him, hence the title “But, Enough About Me.” It’s never about him, but what can he do for you.”

Avrich said directing the film made him realize how similar he is to Mandel. 

“Any time I could spend with him is the best because he is kinetic energy, like a spinning top, like me, and we both don’t sleep. We both thrive on finding comedy,” Avrich said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also posed some challenges while filming the documentary. Avrich said he needed to get creative.

“Another favorite part was figuring out how to pivot because we were shooting as COVID hit last March. We had to find a way to keep filming,” Avrich said. “I would send the crew to film somebody, but I would be directing and asking the questions through Zoom or teleconference.”

One of the most important aspects of the JFilm Festival is its connection to the Jewish community. Avrich said cultural film festivals like JFilm provide an outlet for creative expression that brings people together. 

“Cultural film festivals or film festivals that center on a certain aspect of our culture and our diversity are vitally important because it lets you explore certain cultures’ sense of comedy, their drama, their individuality, their emotion,” Avrich said.

Even though JFilm has a cultural aspect, it does not significantly differ from other film festivals — Spitz Cohan said the process is very much the same when compared to other festivals. 

“I’m not really sure that it has a lot of differences in the sense that we go through the same processes of previewing a bunch of films and engaging volunteer previewers,” Spitz Cohan said. “They’re the same steps, it’s just the only difference is that the content has some relationship to Judaism.”  

Shapiro also said she hopes the festival — as the Pittsburgh region’s largest Jewish cultural event, according to the organization’s website — will diversify its audience in the future. 

“Here in the Pittsburgh region, there are a lot of really great comedians and young filmmakers who are making extraordinary documentaries that I think some of the college-age and young professionals in Pittsburgh are really missing out on. I would like to see the attendance at our Jewish Film Festival diversify,” Shapiro said. 

Spitz Cohan said would like to see a younger turnout as well, and encouraged Pitt students to learn more about Jewish faith and culture.  

“I think students would really enjoy the majority of the films in the festival. I would just encourage students because this year it’s just a really great way to see some really great films,” Spitz Cohan said.