Grab the popcorn – it’s film festival time!

January and February are big months for film aficionados in Arizona. We host two of the longest-running Jewish film festivals in the country. The 26th annual Tucson International Jewish Film Festival presented by the Tucson Jewish Community Center will run from Jan. 12 through 22 and the 21st annual Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival will run from Feb. 12 through 26.

These two festivals may not have many films in common this year – they are only showing three duplicates – but both festivals don’t shy away from films with controversial topics.

This includes the opener for this year’s Tucson festival, “The Price of Sugar.” It’s a Dutch/German/South African co-production about Dutch-Jewish sugar plantation owners who were also slave holders in Surinam.

“There was discussion among the committee whether we should even show the film – Jews as slave owners? – but it ended up being our opener,” says Tucson International Jewish Film Festival Committee Chair Steve Zupcic. “By looking at the topic ourselves, rather than avoiding it, we become honest about history and it gives strength to our discussion of things like the Holocaust.”

Bob Segelbaum, executive director of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, remembers one controversial film in particular. “A few years ago, we showed the film ‘Forgiving Dr. Mengele.’ The board was almost lynched. People were so upset.” He says the theory was to forgive Dr. Mengele, to get it out of our system and move on. “The director was highly criticized, but the film was excellent.”

Choosing films for these festivals is a painstaking process, whether they are controversial or not. In Tucson, the committee looks at more than 80 films to pick out the best of the best for the festival. “Our entire committee of 15 to 16 people watches every film and then we argue over which ones should percolate to the top,” says Steve. “Although our festival can often be heavy with documentaries, we pick [those] that transcend National Geographic. [Some are] controversial, with real-life people like ourselves, our families. We choose documentaries that have intense emotional value.”

In Phoenix, the planning for next year begins a week after this year’s festival closes. Two artistic directors find and screen the films. If one of the two has a favorable opinion about the film, then it goes to the screening committee. “We have three screening committees: one for the east Valley, one for the west Valley and one for the Scottsdale area,” says Bob. The committees of 12 to 14 members meet independently on a weekly basis, screening year-round until September or October. By the end of October, the films are chosen based on votes.

Food movies are usually added to the lineup. What would a Jewish film festival be without food? This year, Tucson is celebrating two foodie films with special events. The first features “The Pickle Recipe” a film about a stolen pickle recipe. “We are serving a good deli lunch with lots of pickles,” jokes Steve.

The second event is based on the film “The Search for Israeli Cuisine” and wraps up the festival. “Israel is a real hotbed of culinary diversity, with Jews from all over the world bringing their foods with them,” says Steve. “[In the film,] a renowned chef goes on a journey to discover all the innovations being created in Israel today – this goes way beyond Andrew Zimmern [the Travel Channel’s host of “Bizarre Foods”],” says Steve. There will be a multi-cultural Israeli buffet before the film showing.

Phoenix isn’t hosting any foodie film events this year but is combining forces with the East Valley Jewish Community Center and the City of Chandler to bring a special theatrical production of the play, “Life In A Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” to Chandler Center for the Arts on Jan. 12. (For more information) The film version of the play is part of The Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival’s “Films in the Schools” community outreach program and is shown to high school students in public and private schools throughout the Valley and the state.

Community outreach extends to Tucson with the showing of “Suited,” a film about the Bindle & Keep tailor company in Brooklyn that makes custom suits for the transgender and LGBTQ community. “This film is being used as a fundraiser and all [proceeds from] ticket sales are going to ‘Camp Born this Way,’” says Steve. Camp Born This Way is a camp for transgender and gender-creative youth and their immediate families where they can experience a weekend free from bullying, harassment and judgment. The Tucson film festival is the only Jewish film festival in the country that features LGBTQ-themed films in its annual lineup.

Although individual themes vary greatly, one common criteria for films shown at the festivals is that they have some Jewish theme or connection. “They don’t have to be religious or cultural – just something people can relate to,” says Bob. With the diversity of all the film subjects and the fact that they came from all over the world, one would think it would be difficult to find an overarching theme to the festival; but one has emerged in Tucson: “Division and reconciliation,” says Steve. “More specifically, the search for reconciliation, because that active searching for reconciliation can be more important than whether or not it is found.”

Going to the movies can be an escape, providing entertainment or planting a seed for further thought or discussion. Whatever your preference, you’ll find amazing films at both the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival and the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival. See you at the movies!

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