Museums are great, says Ilya Tovbis, and he should know. He used to work in one: San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. It was while he was there that he started interning for the city’s International Film Festival, a casual side gig that turned into a lifelong love affair. After stints at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the Jewish Community Center of New York’s Israel Film Center and other film presenters, Tovbis has, since 2012, been running the Washington Jewish Film Festival, which opens Wednesday with a 7 p.m. screening of “The Women’s Balcony” at the AFI’s Silver Theatre. The 27th annual festival, which includes 140 events at multiple venues around town, runs through May 28, concluding with a 7:15 p.m. screening of “Fanny’s Journey” at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington.
As good as museums are for showcasing the past — and the past is a big part of the festival, which aims to reveal Jewish history, culture and experience through the moving image — Tovbis says there can be something “a bit stifling” about those institutions. Movie theaters, on the other hand, “allow you to have a shared experience with an audience,” according to Tovbis. In a way, Tovbis argues, going to a WJFF screening — many of which include discussions and appearances by such filmmakers as Amy Heckerling (“Clueless”), Agnieszka Holland (“Angry Harvest”) and Barry Levinson (“Liberty Heights”) — is “a lot like being in an instant book club. There are so many threads to pull on.”
This year, those threads will include a selection of films on the theme “Mechanism of Extremism.” Those offerings include two provocative documentaries: “Keep Quiet,” about an antiSemitic, far-right Hungarian politician who discovered that he had Jewish roots; and “Forever Pure,” a look at the backlash after an Israeli soccer team signed two Muslim players. That film, says Tovbis, is not “a favorite of the Israeli government,” because it uncovers “a darker side” of Jewish culture. Tovbis takes pride in that, saying that the WJFF is “more eager” than some Jewish film fests to “unpack” difficult themes. “Often, when people come here, they think we’re just waving the Israeli flag. ‘Oh, this is such a beautiful country.’ Well, that’s true, but we’re also willing to look critically.”
And to laugh.
A second thread of this year’s festival — which also includes films on sexual orientation and gender identity under the rubric “Rated LGBTQ” — is “Laugh Track.” That comedic subsection will include “As If,” a special May 25 event featuring Heckerling’s comedy “Clueless,” following a 1990s-themed party, complete with a trivia contest, photo booths, specialty cocktails and a DJ. The classic 1995 film is a good example of what Tovbis calls the WJFF’s “purposely broad” approach to the Jewish experience, which includes the light along with the dark. (In case you’ve forgotten, Tovbis points out, Alicia Silverstone’s character is named Cher Horowitz.) Not that Cher’s Jewishness is integral to appreciating the film, he says. But it’s also no coincidence that Heckerling — who as a child lived in a building with Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors — created Cher to be Jewish.
Although the film can be examined — and appreciated — in “a non-Jewish way,” Tovbis believes that “who is examining it changes things.” Jews don’t have a monopoly on neurotic families, he adds, but it’s “not an accident” that some of the greatest practitioners of that genre of humor are Jewish (see: Woody Allen).
There’s room for irreverence and solemnity, Tovbis insists, under the WJFF’s big tent, which includes a reprise of an audience favorite: an afternoon screening of short films, accompanied by a pub crawl. Called “Two Jews Walk Into a Bar (and a Deli),” this year’s May 28 event will, for the first time, include movies, drinks and a nosh — at the new Chinatown restaurant On Rye.
For tickets and information, visit wjff.org .