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This year's SLO Jewish Film Festival aims to unite people through storytelling 

Refugees from Sudan and Eritrea seeking new lives in Israel.

A woman sprouting facial hair as she channels a deceased rabbi.

Albanians protecting Jewish men during World War II as the Nazis close in.

These are some of the stories that the SLO Jewish Film Festival will help tell starting on Jan. 9. With 25 films from at least 17 different countries, the goal of this year's festival is to highlight cultural diversity within the Jewish experience and remind everyone that "we are one, global community," said Bobby Naimark, the JCC- (Jewish Community Center)Federation of SLO manager.

click to enlarge CELEBRATE DIVERSITY The upcoming SLO Jewish Film Festival aims to highlight what it means to be Jewish across environments, eras, and circumstances. - IMAGES COURTESY OF SLO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
  • Images Courtesy Of SLO Jewish Film Festival
  • CELEBRATE DIVERSITY The upcoming SLO Jewish Film Festival aims to highlight what it means to be Jewish across environments, eras, and circumstances.

"We wanted to be able to tell as many stories as possible from all over the world," Naimark said. "There's a lot that can divide us today, but when we look back and tell stories in a personal way, we really do all come together as one."

The festival's theme this year, Our Global Mishpacha, aims to highlight what it means to be Jewish in whatever environment, era, or circumstance someone might live in. Mishpacha is defined as a Jewish family or social unit including close and distant relatives, according to the film festival's website.

Now in its 12th year, Naimark said the festival always tries to highlight diversity, but all of the current angst and polarization in the world made it seem like an especially prescient time to try to curate stories that celebrate differences.

"With all of the divisiveness in the world right now, the film festival acts as a beautiful message of hope and unity amongst all peoples," he said. "We have something for everybody."

Similar to 2021's festival, the 2022 festival will be held in a mostly virtual format due to COVID-19, with pre-recorded filmmaker Q-and-As. Muara C. Johnston, who co-directs the film festival with Bruce Silverberg, said she'd completed 18 Q-and-As as of Dec. 20 with the expectation of finishing a few more before the festival begins.

click to enlarge ISMAIL'S DILEMMA In Nazi-occupied Albania, a Muslim peasant is torn between the national code of honor or protecting his family from certain death in this short narrative film (33 min.) available to view during the SLO Jewish Film Festival from Jan. 9 through 30. - IMAGES COURTESY OF SLO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
  • Images Courtesy Of SLO Jewish Film Festival
  • ISMAIL'S DILEMMA In Nazi-occupied Albania, a Muslim peasant is torn between the national code of honor or protecting his family from certain death in this short narrative film (33 min.) available to view during the SLO Jewish Film Festival from Jan. 9 through 30.

Normally, Johnston said, filmmakers are interviewed in-person at the festival, which can make it difficult for those who can't attend. But with the virtual format, she's been able to interview filmmakers living all over the world, which gives both film festival attendees and makers more access to one another. This is a huge plus for the festival, which has a goal of celebrating the filmmakers.

Another goal for the festival is to bring members of the SLO Jewish community together. It was never about making money, said Johnston, who founded the festival with Lauren Bandari.

"It was really meant to be community building, and then, of course, encourage others to come," she said. "I feel honored and privileged to be able to do this every year. ... I learn so much about the world and just meet so many incredible people."

Because the festival is invitation-only, Johnston and other committee members take suggestions from the film festival community, Naimark said. Usually starting with a list of somewhere between 60 and 75 films, they divide and conquer the films, narrowing it down to the finalists that will get shown. The stories they decided on, Johnston said, are stories that need to be told, that are surprising, and that highlight a broad range of life in Jewish communities across the world.

click to enlarge THE SHABBOS GOY Find a short comedy (7 min.) about the Shabbat, a vibrator gone rogue, and a young Orthodox woman looking for help among the films selected for 2022's SLO Jewish Film Festival. - IMAGES COURTESY OF SLO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
  • Images Courtesy Of SLO Jewish Film Festival
  • THE SHABBOS GOY Find a short comedy (7 min.) about the Shabbat, a vibrator gone rogue, and a young Orthodox woman looking for help among the films selected for 2022's SLO Jewish Film Festival.

Those films include documentaries such as Exile in Turkey—which looks at how German intellectuals who emigrated to Turkey during WWII helped modernize the country and what remains of their legacy—to narratives such as Kiss Me Kosher—a love story about clashing cultures and families that follows two generations of Israeli women who fall for a German woman and a Palestinian man—and shorts that include The Shabbos Goy—a comedy about an Orthodox woman who must find a non-Orthodox person to turn off her vibrator-gone-rogue on the Shabbat.

Similar to any religion, Johnston said, there's a spectrum of practice—from conservative Orthodox Jews to those on the forefront of social justice to those who are imbedded in the culture more-so than the religion.

"No matter how they experience their Judaism, ... they're all part of the Jewish family," she said. "In a world that's so fractured and where anti-Semitism is on the rise. ... [some] of us learn to understand that what it means to be Jewish is to learn that being Jewish isn't one thing. And it varies by culture and it varies by faith."

And good stories are good stories, she said, adding that good storytelling is something that can reach across the boundaries erected by assumptions and stereotyping.

"Storytelling is what unites us," she said. Δ

Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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