Founder Claudine Davison said the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival began in 1988 with three films and "a lot of apprehension and anxiety."
So the fact that organizers are preparing to show 10 films to several thousand viewers for the 20th anniversary season Tuesday through May 18 "is a very, very good feeling," she said. "The proof is in it lasting so long."
The festival, now named for the William and Irene Weinberg Family and sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and the Senator Theatre, has moved from its early home at the Baltimore Museum of Art to the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills. Through the years, it has continued to focus on screening high-quality films that present a variety of viewpoints and subjects pertaining to Jewish interests.
"We judge also the interest it would produce in making people think and discuss," Davison said. Each showing includes a guest speaker, such as the director, screenwriter, a professor or community member, who gets the conversation going.
Sixty Six, scheduled to screen Tuesday, is a British comedy with Helena Bonham Carter and Stephen Rea about a young man with plans for an attention-getting bar mitzvah that may be ruined by the 1966 Soccer World Cup.
Slated for April 8, the French film Free Land has warmth and humor as it follows a group of Jewish Parisians seeking refuge in 1942.
The documentary Everything is Personal, showing May 6, looks at the comedic and conflicted relationship between Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
The series also includes three more Israeli films: Beaufort on April 3, Three Mothers on April 10 and Sweet Mud on April 29.
Most films are Baltimore premieres being screened at the Gordon Center, but two screenings at alternate venues will also be part of the festival: Making Trouble, which centers on comedian Judy Gold and her friends telling stories about being female, funny and Jewish, will be shown at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC on April 13. Strange Fruit tells the story of a song that was written by a Jewish composer and made famous by singer Billie Holiday. The film will be shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art on May 18.
Filmmaker Oren Jacoby said festivals like the one in Baltimore are important. "It's the nature of the way an independent film is distributed," he said. "You create word of mouth by having your film in festivals."
His documentary, Constantine's Sword, follows a former Catholic priest on a journey to examine the historical roots of Christian violence against Jews and the current infiltration of the U.S. military by evangelical Christians.
Jacoby, who will be the guest speaker at the screening April 6, said his film covers a large chunk of history from the Roman Empire through the Holocaust to today, but that viewers will be able to connect with people talking about how they and their families have been affected.
"History is not just about what is in books, it is the story of real people," Jacoby said.
Another film, The Last Train, confronts the Holocaust through fictional characters, but also focuses on the humanity within the history. The story follows a small group of Jews at the end of World War II on a train to a concentration camp and mixes the horror of their situation with scenes of their earlier lives.
Screenwriter Stephen Glantz, who will be at the Baltimore screening, said he knows the film may be a difficult one for people to watch, but added, "you have to make up your mind what kind of film do you want to make, and we wanted to make an uncompromising one."
He added that the film is not only about the fear and terror "but the sense of loss and how much [the characters] love their families. ... Yes, it is about the Holocaust, but what I want people to go away with is to go home and kiss your mother and father and your kids."
Choosing the films is "a year-and-a-half production," Davison said, with the volunteer committee meeting twice a week to evaluate and discuss films from around the world.
"We want to expose [the audience] to something they can't get otherwise," she said.
She said she started the festival because film "is the best kind of vehicle to bring people together and offer something they can share. ... In the beginning, we were happy if we would fill more than half the house. Now we feel bad when we have to turn people away. ... Every year since then it has really grown with more loyal fans."
Tickets are $9 and are available at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC and the Weinberg Park Heights JCC. Some films are sold out. Information: baltimorejff.com or 410-542-4900.