Gone is opening the clamshell for a VHS videotape. There’s no more hefting big cases of 35-millimeter reel-to-reel tapes.
Much has changed, but after 26 years, the three women at the heart of the Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival are still at it.
The festival, an annual project of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, is to be held this year Oct. 15-19 (see story, p. 22). Its three key founders are Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival co-chairs Cindy Benjamin and Ronna Bromberg Pachefsky, and Micki Seinfeld, JCC director of special events.
In the modern era, movie distributors send streaming links – not VHS tapes – that the founding trio and committee members review. From these samples, they choose the films for the festival.
The trio got started more than a quarter-century ago, after Pachefsky moved to Milwaukee. She previously worked in public television in Pittsburgh, walking past King Friday’s Castle to get to the telecom department. Benajamin and Pachefsky met at Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee, and through mutual friends. Back then, Benjamin and Seinfeld shared an office with others at the JCC. Like happenstance in a movie, these are the connections that launched their Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival trio. When the three women started on it, the JCC was showing some 16-millimeter films in its building – this was soon replaced with trips to the movie theater.
Despite attempts from this journalist to sus out whether there are ever disagreements over films, the women were insistent that for 26 years, the endeavor has been dispute-free. They discuss and basically just agree.
But there are challenges. Every year it’s something different, said Benjamin. Most recently, there has been an issue that appears related to the growth of streaming.
“Distributors are now narrowing and narrowing the amount of time that a movie will be available for a film festival, as opposed to on some streaming service,” Benjamin said. “And we’ve had a commitment to not using films if they were available elsewhere.”
At least, the venue is challenge-free. The festival started 26 years ago at the Marcus North Shore Cinema, and it’s still showing films there.
“They have been generous, and they’re a wonderful partner, too; easy to work with,” said Seinfeld. “Not only from their top people, but to the people who are at the movie theater. Their staff there is amazing.”
The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, has provided great support for Holocaust films, offering talkbacks greatly appreciated by the audiences, according to the three women. The Shel and Danni Gendelman Endowment Fund and the Sylvia and Robert Seinfeld Jewish Film Festival Endowment Fund also greatly assist the festival.
Pachefsky said they review movies to try to determine “what will resonate in Milwaukee with the audience.”
“We’re not looking to bring undue drama. It’s one thing to have good stuff to talk about, and to start a conversation. And it’s another thing just to be sort of gratuitous about it and say, we just want to stir the pot.”
For years, the women and committee members met in a house basement with popcorn to watch and discuss movies. Or they streamed, then emailed each other about the movies they all watched. Now, they’re more likely to discuss movies on Zoom, after streaming the film individually with password-protected links provided by movie distributors vying for a spot at the festival.
Asked for titles of movies they are proud to have shown, or that were memorable, they rattled off a few. They agreed on them, of course:
– “Ballad of the Weeping Spring” (2012): “The first thing I said to the distributor was, ‘The committee loved it. We want to show it and where can we buy the soundtrack?’” recalled Pachefsky.
– “Gloomy Sunday” (1999): Three men are involved with a waitress during World War II. “It was beautifully done,” Seinfeld said.
– “Serial Bad Weddings,” (2014): They were a bit nervous about this one because of “cartoonish” portrayals of families in the French film. But the audience loved it.
– “1945” (2017): This is a beautiful, powerful movie, with almost no dialogue, they said.
Local Holocaust survivor and activist Eva Zaret has been on the Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival committee for years, and she’s provided a respected voice in Holocaust film discussions.
Overall, the women say the quality of films has improved over the years, which may be part of why the work never gets old.
“We’re really close. And we love films,” Benjamin said, adding that she knows there are people in the community who are loyal to the program, truly committed. “And so we just keep at it.”
Pachefsky added: “When we stand in the back, and we hear people laughing when we laugh, it’s the best sound ever.”
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The 2023 Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival committee
Co-chairs: Cindy Benjamin and Ronna Bromberg Pachefsky, with JCC Director of Special Events Micki Seinfeld
Members: Elsie Crawford, Suzy Ettinger, Susan Friebert, Noa Gerassi, Jody Hirsh, Pam Kriger, Cindy Rasansky, Uria Roth and Eva Zaret