Films about the queer experience are front and center in the 2016 Washington Jewish Film Festival.
This year’s festival includes 69 films and a variety of special events that will be staged throughout the D.C. area. The festival continues through March 6. The full schedule can be found at wjff.org/2016.
A sidebar called “Rated LGBTQ” showcases nine extraordinary narrative and documentary movies that “provide a forum for diverse perspectives within the queer spectrum including (LGBT) and intersex stories.”
Festival Director Ilya Tovbis says that the “Rated LGBTQ” sidebar emerged spontaneously from this year’s screening process. He and a small army of volunteers looked at more than 1,300 films. Their first criteria is films that deal with Jewish or Israeli identity. After that, Tovbis says, “we look for quality, originality and diversity of voice. Once we get through all of that, every year we end up with certain trend lines.”
This year, one of those trend lines was films that explore the breadth of the queer experience.
“We didn’t say, ‘Let’s look at gay voices in cinema,’” Tovbis says “It was really the other way around. We saw we had a number of films on this topic, so the sidebar came together rather organically.”
He says it’s hard to pick favorites.
“I love them all,” he says. “By the time we get to the final selection, I’m in love with all of them.”
Among the selections are the North American premiere of “Marzipan Flowers,” a new Israeli film by director Adam Kalderon. The film centers on Hadas, a middle-aged widow who forges a connection with her new roommate Petel, a transgender woman with a mysterious past.
“It’s an incredible film, not just for the transgender content which is wise and smart and funny, but it’s also a tremendous example of independent Israeli cinema,” Tovbis says. “It was shot on a shoestring budget and uses green screen in a really clever way. The screenplay is crackling with energy that is both recognizable and something you haven’t really seen before.”
The sidebar also includes “Compared To What? The Improbable Life of Barney Frank,” a documentary directed by the husband-and-wife team of Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler.
“The film reveals a Barney Frank you only thought you knew,” Canavan says. “It is an intimate and entertaining look behind-the-scenes at the public and private life of one of America’s greatest legislators. The film follows Frank from the halls of Congress to the streets of Boston and to the side of his loving partner Jim Ready as they take their vows and he becomes the first member of Congress to enter into a same-sex marriage.”
While making the film was exhausting (Frank typically worked seven days a week from 8 a.m.-11 p.m. most nights and Canavan and Chandler followed him everywhere), the filmmakers were unexpectedly energized by what they found.
“While everyone was asking why Barney was leaving, we wanted to know why he’d stayed,” she says. “We assumed that we would find a discouraged, even cynical, politician. Instead we discovered a fully engaged optimist who still saw as his role as fighting for those who could not fight for themselves.”
“Compared To What?” will be screened twice during the festival. After both screenings, there will be a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers, along with Congressman Frank and his husband, Jim Ready.
“Rated LGBTQ” also includes the lesbian romantic comedy “Portrait of a Serial Monogamist.” Christina Zeidler, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with John Mitchell, says the movie “is a romantic comedy centered on the charming Elsie, the perfect girlfriend who also happens to be a serial monogamist with a long history of broken hearts. When Elsie breaks up with her girlfriend of five years to pursue another woman, she faces her Jewish mother’s disapproval, conflicting advice from friends, and the nagging suspicion that she may have made a big mistake.”
When creating the film, Zeidler and Mitchell wanted to offer a fresh spin on the traditional rom-com formula. The idea for the film was spawned when the two were having beers after one of her hockey games.
“We started talking about the movies that we love, specifically romantic comedies, and how the protagonist is often an emotionally immature guy, who is kind of a jerk, but charming enough that you like him anyway,” Zeidler says.
Zeidler thought it would be refreshing to see a woman in that role and Mitchell jumped on board.
“I was drawn to the idea of doing something totally original,” Michell says. “I thought it was a great starting point.”
Some of the other films in the “Rated LGBTQ” series include the iconic “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” the historic 1971 John Schlesinger movie about a bisexual love triangle; “Third Person” and “The Good Son,” two moving Israeli documentaries about intersex and transgender issues; and, “Yona” and “Feelings Are Facts,” documentaries about two lesbian artists, the Hebrew poet Yona Wallach and the legendary dancer Yvonne Rainer.
The sidebar will also include a special collaboration with Story District (formerly known as Speakeasy DC). On Saturday Feb. 27, the two groups will present “God Loves You? True Stories about Faith and Sexuality,” an evening of true stories about belief and identity that will be performed live. Complete details at wjff.org/rated-lgbtq.
Other festival highlights include “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” the directorial and screenwriting debut of Natalie Portman (who will introduce her film), a screening of the classic Barry Levinson film “Avalon” to accompany the presentation of the festival’s Visionary Award to actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, the sixth annual community education day about Arab Citizens of Israel, the world premiere of “Black Jews: The Roots of the Olive Tree,” and “Demon,” a chilling contemporary retelling of the Dybbuk legend.
“None of the films can be boxed in to say it’s only a film for or about Jews,” he says. “It’s about many things. In the case of the sidebar, it’s about being gay and it’s about being Jewish.”