“I had always made a pledge that I would never make a film under a deadline,” she said during a break from editing. “But I started this film festival, and I really wanted to premiere the film at my own creation.”
“I’m just so excited and thrilled that it’s grown,” she added. “I feel like a grandmother 25 years later.”
Kempner and co-founder Miriam Morsel Nathan began the festival in 1989 with a slate of eight films. Under current director Ilya Tovbis, who arrived three years ago, the event has grown significantly. This year’s lineup includes “nearly 70 films and over 100 screenings,” he said, and “the size of the audience has nearly tripled in the last three years.”
The festival, which runs from next Thursday through March 1, is based at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center near Dupont Circle, but that is only one of nine participating locations. Most screenings will occur at the JCC and the Goethe-Institut in the District and two locations in Montgomery County: the AFI Silver in Silver Spring and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.
“What really distinguishes this festival is the size and ambition,” Tovbis said. “We’re one of the oldest, one of the largest” Jewish film festivals.
To mark the anniversary, Tovbis and the previous directors have selected a series of 20 classic movies on Jewish themes. Other focuses this year include Arab citizens of Israel and the link between Jewish and Senegalese mysticism.
“We pride ourselves on trying to find diverse views, and not constantly retell the same European Jewish story,” Tovbis said. “It’s really important to use this festival to celebrate and educate about the Jewish experience, rather than exclusively aim toward a Jewish audience that already is familiar with one narrative of what it’s like to be Jewish.”
For most of its run, the festival occurred in December, but Tovbis said he insisted on moving it to February. That allows the programming of recent films fresh from — or rejected by — the winter’s big international cinema festivals, notably Sundance and Berlin.
Another change is demographic. “When I started, roughly 8 percent of our audience seemed to be 40 and under,” Tovbis said. “Now it’s 22 percent as of last count, and we hope to do even better this year.”
Among the entries that might draw a younger crowd is “My Favorite Neoconservative,” by local director Yael Luttwak, who grew up in Chevy Chase. It’s a portrait of her father, prominent military strategist Edward Luttwak, from a personally close but ideologically distant perspective. “There’s no question that we’re on different sides of the political spectrum and operate in the world differently,” she said.
“My father is one of those one-of-a-kind characters,” Luttwak said. “I felt as a documentarian, as a filmmaker, as someone who is obsessed with character-driven stories, that I had to make the film.”
The portrait, which was well received at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, turned out to be just 37 minutes long. “I felt that was the right length for this film,” she said.
“In order for it to have three acts, and to be longer, our main character has to change,” she added with a laugh. “And he doesn’t change.”
“My Favorite Neoconservative” will be shown with Luttwak’s work in progress, “Alex’s Letters,” about an American who died while serving in the Israeli military.
Kempner’s film is a more traditional historical documentary, in the mold of such earlier efforts as “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” The subject is Julius Rosenwald, who became president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1908 and used his fortune to establish schools for African American children in the segregated South.
Rosenwald had read Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery,” Kempner said, “and decided he really needed to make a difference. The irony is that he himself never finished high school.”
“He built over 5,000 schools in the rural South, and also gave grants to people that we feature,” she said. These include poet Langston Hughes, singer Marian Anderson, photographer Gordon Parks and artist Jacob Lawrence.
Many of the prominent Rosenwald School graduates Kempner wanted to interview live in Washington. She also relied on such local resources as the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
“Everyone says you have to be in L.A. or New York,” she said. “I say Washington is a great place to make movies.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
For information on the festival, including show times and how to purchase tickets, visit www.wjff.org.