For the past year, Canadians and the world have eagerly tuned into election events unfolding in the United States. Uncertainty, fear, hostility and frustration have dominated, polarizing and dividing individuals and communities. At the forefront of this unfolding has been the media, in all its various forms, which has brought into question the role of media and storytellers in shaping discussion and thought in society. Questions about focus, responsibility, objectivity and perspective, have come forward along with a sense of forlorn and dissatisfaction with media and storytellers in general.
With these thoughts percolating in the back of my mind, I sat down with Harvey Cyngiser, Director of the Calgary Jewish Film Festival, to discuss their upcoming film festival.
As we discussed the line-up of films, it became apparent that the organizers are doing more than merely screening films specifically related to the Jewish experience. They have chosen films that generate discussion and debate, encompass diversity and inclusiveness, address universal topics, inspire, entertain, build community and repair the world.
“[The Festival] is really both cultural and educational, and sort of a community type event,” says Harvey. “Not just for the Jewish community, although that was the initial focus, but for the broader community as well…It goes beyond a celebration of film. It’s a celebration of community itself…People come out to the films. They talk. They debate. And there’s just a nice social atmosphere and feeling of community.”
Each year the Festival hosts a special screening and selects a film that demonstrates the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which literally translates to “repairing the world.” It is based on the idea that the world is imperfect and it is our job as individuals and communities to perfect or repair the world – to champion social justice, humanitarianism and inspire action.
This year’s selection is A Heartbeat Away, a documentary about Israeli pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Akiva Tamir and his team from Save A Child’s Heart, as they travel to Tanzania to perform hundreds of life-saving surgeries. Faced with impossible decisions of who to include in the program, the team confronts their emotions, their faith and the limits of medicine and science.
Other films slated for the Festival, while not specifically selected for the Tikkun Olam Screening, also demonstrate the concept in different ways.
Award-winning documentary Who’s Gonna Love Me Now tells the story of Saar Moaz, an HIV-positive gay man that sought refuge in London after being forced to leave his home at a religious kibbutz in Israel. As his illness progressed, Saar longed to return to his family.
“It’s a family story – a divided family. They have their prejudices and their preconceived notions and they just can’t accept [Saar] for who he is,” says Harvey. “There’s a journey of trying to find a path to reconciliation between them. So really it’s a universal story about acceptance and understanding and dialogue that can appeal to anyone.”
Seven narrative films ranging from comedy and romance to historical drama will also screen at the Festival. Much like their documentary counterparts, the selected films aim to tell stories that inspire, expand worldviews, inform and celebrate diversity, while of course providing entertainment.
At the end of our discussion, I went away hopeful about the future of film and media. The variety of complex stories being created by filmmakers around the world that foster unity rather than division, acceptance rather than rejection, trust rather than fear, is inspiring. While filmmaking is still often a commercial enterprise aimed at bringing entertainment to the masses, at its best film serves a higher purpose; that is to repair the world.
The Beth Tzedec Calgary Jewish Film Festival runs November 12 – 27, 2016.
In its 16th year, the Festival screens films that “explore and celebrate the richness and diversity of the Jewish experience, and showcase some of the very best of contemporary Israeli cinema.” Information and tickets are available at www.CalgaryJewishFilmFestival.com or by calling 403-255-8688.