MJFF back at Strand

A weekend of wonderful films

By Dagney C. Ernest | Mar 14, 2018
The Maine Jewish Film Festival offers a mix of documentary, narrative, short and feature-length films. “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators” mixes media, as well.

Rockland — There’s nothing like taking in a good movie and a box of popcorn on a late winter day. Thanks to the Maine Jewish Film Festival, the Midcoast has that option, twice, this weekend, at the Strand Theatre in downtown Rockland.

It’s the 21st year of the MJFF, but only the fourth time the festival has brought some of its selections to the Midcoast. The fest is back, this time for two screenings — Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, March 17 and 18.

“We felt that there was a really good audience for us here, and we really wanted to give it a try,” said Barbara Merson, who has been the nonprofit fest’s executive director since 2016. “We feel very strongly that we are the Maine Jewish Film Festival and that we want to be in places where there is a good audience.”

A good audience deserves a good film, and Merson is quick to say that is the primary consideration when creating each year’s festival. Even as MJFF 2018 is up and running — it opened March 10 — she is compiling possibilities for next year. Summer is devoted to researching options, via reviews, suggestions, submissions and seeing what other film fests have screened.

“And then we get in all these films. I have a screening committee of 12 people and we watch over a hundred films to pick the ones we show in the festival,” Merson said. “If it’s not a good film, we don’t want to show it!”

Other considerations are geographic and cultural diversity under the overarching theme of the Jewish experience — which the fest defines very broadly, Merson said, and is in no way a prerequisite for taking in a MJFF film.

“The two movies we’re showing at the Strand could have been shown anywhere at any time,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t require any knowledge of being Jewish!”

Saturday at 7 p.m., the fest will screen “An Act of Defiance” (2017, South Africa/The Netherlands); on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., MJFF will screen “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators” (2017, USA). Both films are showing at other festival sites, as well, and are among Merson’s favorites of the more than 30 selections in MJFF 2018.

“An Act of Defiance” is about the Rivonia Trial in South Africa. Merson said she had, of course, known that Nelson Mandela had been in prison and was released when the government changed, but didn’t know the circumstances of his conviction — including the fact that a number of the African National Congress activist’s trial codefendants were Jewish; and that the government’s prosecutor was Jewish, as well.

“The Jews were very involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It’s a gripping film; even though you sort of know how it comes out, it doesn’t matter; you are just on the edge of your seat,” she said.

This film is part of a current that runs through every MJFF program in that it raises a lot of questions about values. That’s one of the things that drew Merson, who has a background in not-for-profit leadership, to the festival. In fact, she is currently working on a doctoral dissertation on values education.

“A lot of our movies do relate to values, and we have discussions afterwards that often focus on the values presented in the movie,” she said.

She predicted “An Act of Defiance” will provoke just such discourse.

“There are no good guys or bad guys, it’s very ambiguous. It’s really a wonderful film,” she said.

“Monkey Business” is quite a different movie, but shares the story-you-didn’t-know appeal. Mixing documentary footage with creative animation, it tells the surprising backstory of America’s favorite simian protagonist, Curious George. This year being the 76th anniversary of the beloved character’s debut book, Merson was looking into film options for the festival’s annual first-weekend children’s event. And she had heard a rumor there was some kind of Jewish angle.

“We all think of Curious George as very American … I was just amazed to find that it was actually written by two German Jewish refugees, who were living in Paris at the time and escaped literally one bicycle pedal ahead of the Nazis,” Merson said.

German-born Margret Elizabeth and H.A. (Hans) Rey met and married in Brazil; and moved to Paris, where H.A.’s first children’s book (which included a secondary monkey that inspired the one we all know) was published. When they fled Paris in 1940, 50 miles on bicycles, they had with them five manuscripts, one of which was “Curious George.” The couple made it to the United States and, eventually, to New Hampshire, where their home has been turned into a multi-generational center for learning and exploration.

“It’s an absolutely fascinating story! And they were really characters,” Merson said of the couple.

In addition to offering a classic immigrants’ tale of defying the odds, the documentary paints an interesting portrait of the business strategy that has made “Curious George” a worldwide success.

“They really decided how Curious George would be presented, especially Margret, who was the business person. She had a lot to do with the image of Curious George and how Curious George became a brand, so there’s sort of a business story in there, too, that’s very interesting,” Merson said. “And just as a film, it has really creative animations. I highly recommend that one, as well.”


MJFF Screenings

at Rockland’s downtown Strand Theatre

March 17, 7 p.m.: “An Act of Defiance”

March 18, 2:30 p.m.: “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators”

There is a lot to recommend across the festival, which has screenings this year in Bangor, Brunswick, Lewiston, Waterville, Rockland and “all over Portland.” The film program also is all over the map.

“We like to show the global experience. This year, for example, we have a film from South Africa; we have films from Israel; a film from Australia; we have a film relating to Iraqi music — we try to go very broad, geographically,” Merson said.

The fest also looks for “films that relate to the Zeitgeist,” she said. This year’s program has films about empowering women and girls; a film about community organizing; and a number of films that touch on immigrant issues. There is always an effort to find themes that will resonate with people in Maine, as well as highlight films made in Maine, Merson said. The latter can be a challenge.

“Sometimes it’s hard, because Maine films tend to get shown quite widely in Maine. There were excellent Maine films we would have loved to have shown, but they had already been around,” she said.

So this year, a sneak peek at a yet-to-be-released film is filling the bill. An opening weekend screening of “The Jerusalem Dream” (2016, Israel), about Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, at the Portland Museum of Art was accompanied by a clip of “From Away,” an upcoming film by Topsham native Maya Tepler.

“Her family adopted two Burundian boys. We felt that having Maya come and show a clip of her film about her brothers would be a really interesting experience for the audience,” Merson said.

The PMA also will host one of the fest’s highlights comprising two screenings inspired by this year’s 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. On Friday, March 16, at 11:30 a.m., the fest screens the documentary “The Making of West Side Story” (1985, UK/West Germany). And on Saturday, March 17, at 2 p.m., the 1961 Technicolor “West Side Story” itself will be shown — with an intermission.

“They made them long in those days! So people will have a chance to get up and stretch and sing a little bit … the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus is going to do a little sing-along,” Merson said.

While the length of the movie, the film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, is dated, its storyline is not, Merson discovered when she re-watched it prior to the festival.

“It is amazing how timely that film still is. Unfortunate, maybe, but it really is right there with any current film on immigration that we could show,” she said.

The Maine Jewish Film Festival, whose board includes North Atlantic Blues Festival co-founder/producer Jamie Isaacson, has come a long way since its early days on Portland’s Exchange Street. It is honoring that heritage this year by introducing the Judy and Steve Halpert Audience Choice Award. The Halperts ran The Movies on Exchange for 32 years and were famously supportive of the MJFF. Votes will be tallied 21st-century-style via the Poll Everywhere app.

Audiences can give their opinion of the 2018 festival via the app or exit survey. Last year’s survey revealed that 51 percent of respondents did not identify as being Jewish, so “our mission is to really reach as diverse an audience as possible,” Merson said. And a third of 2017 attendees were taking in their first MJFF.

“Their comments all were like, boy, I wish I had known about this festival a while ago, because I saw really good films,” Merson said. “If you’re looking for a really good, stimulating experience from a film, these are fantastic films, in any context.”

Tickets for the Strand or any other screenings of the Maine Jewish Film Festival are $10, $8 for students and senior citizens, in advance via mjff.org; and $12/$10 at the door just prior to showings. The website also has synopses of all the selections and the statewide schedule.

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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for more than 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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