Interview: SDJFF Filmmakers Talk About The Festival Experience
Jewish Film Festival Continues Through Sunday
Monday, February 13, 2012
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando interviews filmmakers at the 22nd Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival.
The 22nd Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival kicked off last week. On Sunday, I attended a brunch and spoke with filmmakers about the experience of showing their films at a festival.
The San Diego Jewish Film Festival encourages discussions between filmmakers and audiences. On Saturday night, director Vikram Jayanti had an impromptu 30 minute pre-film discussion with people waiting in line for his documentary "The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector." Then he hosted an hour-long post film Q&A. He found both invigorating and typical of the festival experience.
Filmmaker and animator Hanan Harchol felt a need to attend this year's festival after his father -- a chief inspiration for his films -- died. He says it provides a way to celebrate his father's life by sharing the films with an audience.
Here are the brief interviews I had with three of the filmmakers attending this year's festival.
Hanan Harchol, who showed a film at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival almost ten years ago, is presenting an evening of short works entitled, "Jewish Food for Thought" (7:30pm at Reading Clairemont Town Square). There will be 3 episodes, two have already been released on iTunes, and the third one which is making its debut plus one of his "Nuclear Physicist" shorts.
BETH ACCOMANDO: You almost didn't come to the festival because your father, who figures prominently in your films just passed away.
HANAN HARCHOL: My father passed away two weeks ago. He was sick for several months and we kind of knew it was serious. So I guess I had some kind of warning. It is quite difficult in the sense that my father played a major role as a character in my animations and I impersonate his voice and his Israeli accent, and he helped me a lot with the projects because we would discuss them. So at the same time I feel that the work is a testament to him and our relationship, and I think it makes it more personal as a result.
BA: What do you enjoy about the festival experience?
HANAN HARCHOL: First of all, I love experiencing, seeing the film viewed amongst an audience, there's some kind of synergy that happens when people are feeding off of one and others experience, and it's a very gratifying for me as a filmmaker to be a witness to that experience. So that's one element. Second, there's the question and answer period afterwards that I find very satisfying. I'm always surprised and challenged by many of the questions and it makes me then think about my work in a new way. So that's important for me as a filmmaker.
BA: Does the San Diego Jewish Film Festival stand out as different in any way from other festivals?
HANAN HARCHOL: The people here are terrific and I particularly want to mention Joyce Axelrod, who brought me out here. And who also brought me out the first time. And the community here is terrific. Everyone is so supportive and it's just a delight to be here. I think the way they have integrated the Jewish community here around the festival as this wonderful event to bring community together and celebrate creativity is just fantastic.
BA: Tell me about your animation?
HANAN HARCHOL: This particular series that I've come out here with, "Jewish Food for Thought," each episode revolves around one theme. For example, the themes here are chuvah, episode 2 is about forgiveness, and episode 3 is about gratitude. And what I do is I distill, I do a tremendous amount of research of Jewish texts, working with many, many rabbis, and scholars, and I distill the Jewish wisdom around a theme and then integrate the wisdom into a very accessible, interesting conversation between a father and a son. I don't mention a Jewish god or anything, it's very non-preachy, non-judgmental, but within our conversation the Jewish wisdom is distilled in a very useful way in the way it applies to contemporary every day life.
BA: How did you get into animation and decide to use your father as a central figure?
HANAN HARCHOL: I started out making paintings and drawings of my family. Always when I was a little boy I would draw my family and I would also impersonate them. And then in graduate school, I guess the two things came together. Instead of just a narrative painting or drawing that was telling a story through visuals, I suddenly incorporated the impersonation of my father and mother's voice and accent and the I found that through animation I can actually not only tell a story but it's very disarming, you know, people see an animation, and they let their guard down because it's funny and I can impersonate the mannerisms of my father , "Hanan, listen!" And he's waving his finger in the air so people find humor in that and through the humor, and through the drawings I can actually get a lot deeper into some very profound themes that I incorporate maybe in a subversive way.
Leo Khasin is a German filmmaker screening "Kaddish for a Friend" (5:00pm tonight; 6:00pm on February 14; 8:35pm on February 18; and all screenings at Reading Clairemont Town Square). The film is a tragic-comic story about a friendship between a Palestinian boy and an old Russian Jew living next door in Berlin, Germany.
BA: Why do you enjoy coming to film festivals to screen your films?
LEO KHASIN: This is why I do films, I do films for an audience and therefore I have to be there and see the reaction and I've already been to the Boston Jewish Film Festival and I have seen the reaction on the East Coast so it's interesting to see if it's the same here. Plus, it's a possibility for people to see the film and we have a distributor for Germany, the film is going to be released on March 15th but abroad we don't have a distributor and this is the possibility for distributors to get interested in films. And on the other hand I do films for an audience and the festival is one part of the way of showing films to people, especially in the United States.
BA: There has been some discussion on my blog about the need for specialized film festivals. Why do you feel it's important to have a Jewish film festival?
LEO KHASIN: It's important because the Jewish culture is a special interest on the one hand but it's really unique and so everything that is unique needs its own medium, it's own place. It's a theme, so people who are interested in Judaism or not in Judaism but in Jewish topics or even Jewish communities have the chance to meet together and have a cultural program and this is one thing that I get with the film it's not that I'm only doing films on Jewish topics but this is a part of the way I see the Jewish life and it's important that it's going to be seen.
Vikram Jayanti held a screening of his documentary "The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector" on this past Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The film will not screen again at the festival but will likely be re-released when David Mamet's narrative film about Phil Spector opens in early 2013.
BA: So I heard that your Saturday screening had a little more discussion that you had expected.
VIKRAM JAYANTI: The theater it was meant to screen in was running late so they moved the waiting line -- to keep them from getting cranky -- into another theater and we had half an hour to kill so I thought I'd warm up the crowd. They were great. I wasn't expecting that many people for a late night screening. But it was packed and the questions were great. It was almost as if they had seen the picture already.
BA: How did the post film discussion go?
VIKRAM JAYANTI: For me the best part of going to festivals is the Q&A afterwards, it's where I'm happiest. I'm happier doing the Q&A than I am shooting or in the editing room and this is a good audience. What's great is just looking at the people organizing it, the volunteers, it's a very community oriented festival, and so the audiences have a lot of commitment. And it was good. And it's quite close to home as well. Phil Spector being a Los Angeles guy, who obviously had issues with Jewish Identity all his life. I was surprised to be selected for it because it's not a Jewish film but actually there is a case to be made for Phil as a Jewish outsider in mainstream America. And part of a great tradition of American Jews who helped build the whole popular music scene here from Gershwin and Berlin to Sondheim to rock and roll. So I felt a great connection to the audience. What I was amazed was the audience felt a great connection with the film and wouldn't stop asking questions afterwards. I think the Q&A ran about an hour.
BA: What do you enjoy about this kind of interaction with audiences?
VIKRAM JAYANTI: I just love the Q&A, I just love the back and forth with the audience. Sometimes you find out things about your film that you hadn't noticed. There was one question last night that asked me about the specific composition of one of the shots and I thought wow that's really cool, somebody actually noticed something I actually did deliberately in the editing room three years ago and I thought that was brilliant. When you finish a film you sort of send it out into the void and the only way you can judge it is box office receipts and some critical reviews, you don't have that close a personal, physical connection with it. I love the festival circuit because audiences make you feel that you're not laboring away and then sending a postcard to the world. You actually get to watch it get read.
BA: So does your film have a distribution deal?
VIKRAM JAYANTI: It's had 72 sort of art house runs of between 2 and 6 weeks. And it will be re-released when David Mamet's movie based on the doc comes out in about a year. First quarter in 2013, I think. And it's a very good double bill. I worked with Mamet on the movie, which has Al Pacino as Phil Spector, and Helen Mirren as his lawyer Linda. And if you look at the two films together I think it's an amazing double header. Mamet's thing is a dramatic tour de force. But mine has 21 songs.
The San Diego Jewish Film Festival continues through Sunday, February 19. I will be presenting the program, "Jews in Toons," on Thursday night at 7:30pm at the Reading Clairemont Town Square Theaters. Hope you can join me for a fun evening of toons, "The Simpsons," "South Park," and "Family Guy."