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With New Artistic Director, Jewish Film Festival Targets Younger Audience

BOSTON — The Boston Jewish Film Festival is back this week. Between now and Nov. 19, over 10,000 people are expected to attend screenings at 10 venues.

Amy Geller, the new artistic director of the Jewish Film Festival, wants to bring new life to the event. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

In its 24th year, the BJFF is one of the longest-running festivals in town. When asked about its angle, artistic director and film producer Amy Geller pitches it this way:

“We show the best contemporary Jewish films from all over the world. That’s kind of the tag line,” Geller said.

The West Newton Cinema is one of the fest’s main venues. Films are also being screened in theaters on the north and south shores, and as far west as Framingham.

“We go where the Jews are,” Geller said with a laugh.

A Homecoming

The sparky, 38-year-old wears glasses and chunky boots. Her new job as artistic director is something of a homecoming.

“I grew up in New Hampshire, there are not a lot of Jews there,” Geller said. “I kind of felt like I was always looking for a Jewish community to connect with.”

As it happens, Geller’s first job out of college was with this festival. She said that experience changed her life.

“It sounds kind of hokey, but the Jewish Film Festival was a safe place for me to kind of explore my Jewish identity, which is really complicated. It’s a huge continuum,” she said. “And these films aren’t telling you this is how you should be, they’re just showing you different ways that people express their Jewishness.”

Geller learned a ton while working with the festival’s founder, Michal Goldman. She also calls then-artistic director Kaj Wilson and executive director Sara Rubin mentors. Inspired, Geller left her position at the festival so she could produce features, documentaries and shorts. She also taught at Boston University and Emerson College. From 2001 to 2002, she was the president of the board of Women in Film and Video New England.

The Jewish Film Festival’s slate has always been diverse, hailing from France, Israel, Africa and the U.S. Today’s cinema landscape is very different from when Geller worked here more than a decade ago, according to Jaymie Saks, the current executive director. She and the festival’s board hired Geller in March after a national search.

“There was a time when this was the only way you could see Jewish films,” Saks recalled. “That’s just no longer true in the world we live in. There’s Netflix, there’s video on demand, there are all different ways now that you can watch movies besides coming to our festival. So we need to continue to reach people where they are, to get them excited, and to do unique programming that’s going to keep people interested.”

The Next Generation

Saks said this festival tends to attract women in their 50s, 60s and 70s, which is great, but they need to think about the future. Erin Trahan, editor of the film magazine The Independent, says that’s critical, especially for festivals that focus on specific cultural groups, like women or gays and lesbians.

“Festivals elsewhere struggle with wanting to expand their audience so that they can reach as many people as they want,” Trahan said. She thinks Amy Geller will help the Jewish Film Festival to do that “because she brings a younger perspective.”

Geller is dead set on broadening our definitions of cinema in the 21st century.

“You know narrative stories are being told not just on film anymore,” Geller said. “Obviously that’s still a wonderful format, but they’re being told on video, they’re being told on television, they’re told even through video games.”

Geller’s plans to integrate all kinds of new media into the programming. This year she’s collaborating with area youth groups to run an “American Idol”-style text vote during a short film program. She’s also including more movies by women like a bold, experimental documentary called “Of Birds and Boundaries,” directed by Annie Berman.

“It’s pretty provocative,” Geller said, “She puts an ad on Craigslist for a platonic conversation with a Hasidic guy. So it’s a series of conversations that she records between her and this Hasidic man in Brooklyn.”

Some light flirting mixes with thoughtful, sometimes surprising conversations about each other’s views on Judaism.

“And it’s just a fascinating look at the something you don’t have access to in general,” Geller said.

That’s the point of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, Geller believes. She says she can’t wait to share the 45 films she selected for this year’s program.

“I’m just jumping out of my skin with this excitement because it’s like when you’re a filmmaker, you’ve been working and working and working in dark rooms, editing your film, thinking about it in your head, and now you get to show it to an audience and get feedback and be part of the community,” she said. “And that’s why you do this, that’s why this is exciting, so I can’t wait.”

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