Cultural Awareness for the Community at Large

by Apr 15, 2024Art & Culture, Event

Wilmington Jewish Film Festival will present its 10th annual festival from May 1 to 9 in downtown Wilmington.

Wilmington Jewish Film Festival celebrates a decade of screening films from around the world about the Jewish experience and culture.

The nonprofit organization will present its 10th annual festival from May 1 to 9 at the historic Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Wilmington. It will feature six film screenings.

The origins of the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival began with an idea from a newcomer, Beverly Schoninger, who was a regular attendee of the Denver Jewish Film Festival. She connected with some movers and shakers in the community who thought it was a great opportunity and they put up some seed money. The festival was born in October 2013 with a single, lighthearted film, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, celebrating Jewish songwriters’ contributions to Broadway musicals. The film was followed by a speaker (the director) and then a catered reception offering many opportunities for conversation and community.

2024 WJFF

“That initial screening was so successful and well-attended that the organizers decided to move forward with the first annual festival in April 2014,” says Debbie Smith, current president and chair of Wilmington Jewish Film Festival.

Since its inception, Wilmington Jewish Film Festival has screened more than 70 films from a wide range of genres including comedy, documentary, drama, rom-com, comedic drama, narrative, biography, romance, animation and family dramas.

“We generally have one or two Holocaust-related films, but we are always looking for different human-interest stories related to the Holocaust,” says Pam Sender, communications chair of Wilmington Jewish Film Festival. “We also try to throw a comedy in the mix.”

The festival’s primary mission is to present films with Jewish content that advance and share common interests within the Jewish community and at the same time share its heritage with the general public.

“Thirty percent of our audience is not Jewish,” Sender says. “We’re excited that through these films we can bring cultural awareness to the community at large.”

Choosing which films to screen is the responsibility of the film selection committee. The committee is headed by three individuals who preview films they find through research, which includes other Jewish film festivals and film distributors across the globe. Once they narrow their selection, they submit their recommendations to the rest of the committee which then watches, rates, and chooses the films to screen. Once the festival is over, the selection committee immediately starts searching for new films for the next year.

Wilmington Jewish Film Festival 2024

In addition to the annual spring festival, the organization has also added a summer series as well as pop-up screenings that may occur throughout the year.

Wilmington Jewish Film Festival provides much more than entertainment and inspiration at its annual screenings. At the center of Judaism’s value system is education. So, it is only natural that educational outreach be a component of the organization’s mission.

“We bring a lot of great films to the festival, but historically, they didn’t necessarily work for school-aged kids,” Smith explains. “With the evening hour constraints of the festival, we weren’t really focused on students.”

Then there was an idea to use film to talk about the Holocaust with high school students.

A teacher overseeing the gifted program at New Hanover and Laney high schools presented the idea to 10th-grade English teachers at New Hanover, and many were inspired to have their students participate. In the spring of 2017, approximately 150 sophomore students and their teachers walked to Thalian Hall, where Wilmington Jewish Film Festival screened an age-and-theme-appropriate film, along with a speaker. “That was a “big success, and the students were really engaged in the discussion after the film,” Smith says.

Today Wilmington Jewish Film Festival has expanded the opportunity for high school students by offering screenings in both the spring and the fall to be able to include the greatest number of students. They host more than 2,000 participants at the Wilson Center throughout the school year. The film shown is based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Fanny Ben-Ami, who led a group of children, when she was only 12 years old, from Italy to the Swiss border. Wilmington Jewish Film Festival covers all the costs from busses, drivers, security and venue fees.

WJFF 2024

“The film complements what the students are learning about the Holocaust in their 10th-grade English classes,” Smith says. “What we do prior to the film is talk a little bit about why what we are doing is important. We don’t go into the horrific details about the Holocaust but include the concept of differences in people and why that was significant during the Holocaust. We emphasize that while there are many differences in gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., we have a lot more in common than those differences, and it’s important to be more tolerant of others who are different.”

Want to go?
Wilmington Jewish Film Festival
May 1 to 9
Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts, 310 Chestnut Street, Wilmington
Individual tickets may be purchased for $10 per film. Cinema passes are available for $60 per person or $75 per person for a cinema pass with dinner.
For a complete film schedule and pricing menu, visit online at wilmingtonjff.org.

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