The Indianapolis Jewish Film Festival: A Look at its History

The Indianapolis Jewish Film Festival (IJFF) is a film festival founded by Robert Epstein in 2000 with the aim of highlighting Arab-Jewish cooperation in medieval Spain, as well as to bring attention to marginalized Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish cultures. Since then, it has grown to become one of the most renowned Jewish film festivals in the world, and has been awarded by the Slingshot Fund and IndieWire, which included it among the 50 best film festivals in the world. In 2002, the IJFF completed its move to a permanent space, the Ninth Street Independent Film Center in San Francisco, which it co-owns with its multimedia arts partners Frameline, the Center for Asian American Media and the Ninthth Street Media Arts Consortium. This move allowed for more screenings throughout the year, with monthly screenings at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts cultural center in downtown San Francisco.

In addition, the IJFF established a partnership with the local PBS affiliate, KQED. This partnership began with a weekly series called Living Room Festival, followed by an annual broadcast of films from the festival at the Best of the SFJFF each fall. The IJFF also traveled to Madrid in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews. It was here that it sought to highlight Arab-Jewish cooperation in medieval Spain and to bring attention to marginalized Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish cultures.

When Bob Epstein realized that Indianapolis wasn't one of the many cities hosting a Jewish film festival, he decided to host one himself. A committee of about 20 people met at Epstein's house to see 80 candidate films, a list that was reduced from about 250 nominations. Filmmakers who explore Jewish themes usually start their careers with a short film at the IJFF, and many of them return to the IJFF with feature documentaries and narratives. Among these films are Trembling Before Gs, about Orthodox Jews who face their homosexuality, and Live and Convert, about Jews of color from Ethiopia.

Its goal was to use cinema to initiate a new and open debate about politics and culture within the Jewish community and to challenge Hollywood stereotypes about Jews among the general public. Regular film festivals sometimes have difficulty getting people interested in and appreciating quality art in movies. However, this is not an issue for IJFF as it has been able to reach sold-out audiences, mostly students in their 20s and 30s, who take part in electrifying debates about the meaning of multiculturalism. The story of Wilfrid Israel, a wealthy Jewish businessman and owner of the largest shopping mall in Berlin in the 1930s who helped save thousands of Jews and played a key role in the Kindertransport operation will also be screened at this year's festival. The Indianapolis Jewish Film Festival has come a long way since its inception 20 years ago. It has become one of the most renowned Jewish film festivals in the world, receiving awards from both IndieWire and Slingshot Fund.

It has also been able to reach sold-out audiences who take part in electrifying debates about multiculturalism.

Ava Kobylinski
Ava Kobylinski

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