Film festivals have quickly become one of the trendiest events for a community to hold. It seems that every city, town or region has put together one in the last few years, with the hope of bringing a little bit of that Hollywood feel to their neck of the woods.
That's not the case with the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival, which kicks off its 23rd annual edition this weekend with the same blend of shorts, documentaries and feature films it has put on the screen since the beginning.
The only significant change? It's a lot bigger now, said Lynn Davis, the festival's director and a member of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, which puts on the event and hosts most of its screenings.
"It's grown significantly," she said. "We have a committee that meets once a week from February to August to start planning this. The screen is barely cold before we've started looking at films for the next year."
The parameters for a film to be chosen for the festival are simple: It must contain some form of Jewish content, or be made by a person of the Jewish faith.
"It could be made by a culturally Jewish director, but the film isn't about Jews," Davis said. "That means that a Jewish artist has chosen to create this subject matter. That's Jewish enough."
An example of this is one of the festival's featured selections, Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, which will be the grand-opening feature this Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Loft Cinema. The film tells the true story of a well-known children's book author and illustrator from the 1950s and '60s who also became known for Vietnam War protest art and erotica.
"For some reason our film really resonates to a Jewish audience," said the director, Brad Bernstein. "Tomi lived under Nazi occupation in France in late '30s and early '40s. He's not Jewish, but it was how he speaks (of) the Nazis; he kind of kept Yiddish and Jewish culture relevant."
Bernstein said the film has been shown at other Jewish film festivals, winning awards in Israel and Warsaw, Poland. The Tomi Ungerer Story was a requested selection for the Tucson festival, while most other entries were submitted.
Davis said she gets about 100 submissions per year, with the committee paring the list as it selects what will be screened. This year's festival includes 24 entries, and though no specific theme is chosen for each year, one often presents itself.
"We don't start out in February with a theme in mind; it just kind of merges organically," Davis said. "Last year, six or so films dealt with Jews in the music industry. This year I would say we have more films with a social justice bent."
Some films, such as Bernstein's, have screened at other festivals but are making their Arizona debuts. Others are being shown for the first time anywhere. Davis said that with so much competition from other festivals, the committee finds it hard to get debut material, but members do their best to provide a wide range of selections.
Brave Miss World, which has never been screened in Arizona before, will close the festival on Saturday, Jan. 26. The film chronicles how former Israeli beauty queen Linor Abargil used her platform to help victims of sexual violence throughout the world. Proceeds from that screening will benefit LEAH (Let's End Abusive Households), a program by the Jewish Family and Children's Services of Southern Arizona.
The festival technically kicked off last Sunday, Jan. 12, when a film that screened last year, AKA Doc Pomus, was shown in SaddleBrooke. Other than the Loft event this Saturday, the remainder of the screenings will be held in the Tucson JCC's ballroom, with two or three films shown each day.
Audiences will be polled after each film to help select the Best of the Fest award winner.