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Jewish film festival finds a home

The Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival might have finally found a home.

For 27 years, the festival has been Western New York's largest showcase for little-seen films about Judaism and Jewish culture. Each festival typically featured 10 to 15 films, shown over the course of about one week in "borrowed" space. It was usually hosted at Dipson's Amherst or Market Arcade theater, sometimes bouncing between those venues within the same week.

But this year's festival, which starts Sunday and runs through June 28, will be held entirely at the 120-seat Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in the Jewish Community Center in Getzville. This residency allows for the festival to be longer (12 days) and larger (20 films will be screened) than it has been in many years. "Certainly, since I've been on the committee, this is the biggest festival we've had," said Michael Silverman, the festival's chairman, who has been involved in the festival for eight years.

For festival organizers, this expansion is a cause for celebration. But a lot of hard work was needed to make it possible for people to enjoy their kosher concessions and recline in their theater seats.

"We're doing a lot more this year," said Sandy Saada, the JCC's cultural arts director, who has worked on the festival since 1999. Saada said about 25 volunteers help run the festival, but in previous years, they also had help from the host theater staff. This year, they are the ones who will be supervising screenings and running the concessions.

The hardest work, though, goes into picking the films. Silverman leads a selection committee with 12 core members, and several occasional contributors, who research, watch, critique and ultimately choose each year's films. The 20 selected films were culled from about 60 possible titles. Silverman said they look for films with "significant Jewish content," in one way or another. "Or else, they can be films from Israel," he added. But they also strive for diversity – this year's schedule includes films from eight countries – and, most importantly, they seek to highlight films that otherwise did not receive regional attention.

This year's lineup consists entirely of films that were never commercially screened in Buffalo. Silverman singled out two documentaries as his favorites among this year's films: "Precious Life" (2010), about a Palestinian boy who relies on an Israeli hospital for life-saving medical attention, and "The Rescuers" (2011), which connects the rescue of thousands of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust with the current genocide in Darfur. "I was really taken with it," Silverman said of that film. "The whole idea, how it was done, everything."

Also on the schedule are documentaries about two revered Jewish writers – Amos Oz, who spoke in Buffalo last year as part of the Babel series, and Ruth Gruber; "Naomi," which is billed as an "Israeli film noir"; and "Free Men," a thriller about Muslims who join the French Resistance in 1942 Paris.

With such a diverse schedule, it seems that the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre is an accommodating fit for the festival's intentions. "I anticipate we're going to be there permanently," Silverman said.

The festival begins Sunday with a screening of "Hand in Hand" at 2:30 p.m. For the full film schedule, visit bijff.com.

email: jsilverstein@buffnews.com