Celebrating Jewish Cinema at the HK Jewish Film Festival

Celebrating Jewish Cinema at Hong Kong's 22nd Jewish Film Festival

From Nov. 13-21, 2021, the 22nd edition of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival (HKJFF)—Asia’s longest-running flagship festival for Jewish and Israeli-themed cinema—will showcase a range of feature films, documentaries, and shorts celebrating the diversity of Jewish and Israeli culture.

This year's edition, taking place in Kennedy Town’s Golden Scene Cinema and the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, is previewing Jewish films and shorts from Israel, Switzerland, the U.S., Germany, France, Italy, Canada, India, and the U.K.

The opening film to be held on Saturday Nov. 13 at the Golden Scene Cinema is “Neighbours,” a Swiss-produced story about the afflictions of a young Kurdish boy, named Sero, dealing with Kurdish nationalism and anti-Zionism living in dictatorial 1980s Syria. The film was a finalist in the 2021 Shanghai International Film Festival and has Chinese subtitles.

This year’s festival will showcase 20 feature films and 10 shorts.

Films shown on the second night of the festival, Nov. 14, will include U.S.-produced “A Call to Spy,” a story about a Jewish Romanian immigrant at the heart of Churchill’s secret spy agency in WW2; “Til Kingdom Come,” an Israeli-produced documentary about the relationship between Evangelic Christianity and the Jewish state; “Love it Was Not,” an Israeli-Austrian film about the fraught love of an SS soldier and a young Jewish woman; “Power Keg,” a Danish feature film about the story of a Danish criminal terrorizing his city of Copenhagen after the 2015 synagogue attacks.

Other notable films include “Sublet,” an Israeli love story about a New York Times travel writer and local Tel Aviv boy; “Rose,” a French-produced film about an elderly woman aiming to reinvent herself after the death of her husband; and “Resistance,” the festival’s closing film of Jessie Eisenberg’s Holocaust-era tribute.

In the beginning, the aim of the festival was to bring Jewish cinema to the far-flung Hong Kong Jewish community, comprised of expatriate Americans, Brits, Israelis, and French working in the finance and manufacturing industries.

“In the era prior to Netflix, it was harder to get Jewish-themed movies abroad and present them to audiences,” Eli Bitan told The Beat Asia in an interview.

In 22 years, the festival has screened close to 300 features, documentaries, and short films from over 35 countries in 35 languages and dialects.

“The ethos of the festival,” Eli explains, “has not changed. We want to entertain and to give local and Jewish audiences access to Jewish themes.”

Since Eli took the helm, the festival has opened up to the local Hong Kong community for attracting non-Jewish audiences to view their content. The aim in promoting Jewish-theme cinema in society, culture, and food, and issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to an audience beyond the small Jewish community.

Whilst the Jewish community is the “backbone” of the festival, Eli states, the festival is growing with Chinese audiences who are interested to explore the topics of Judaism and Israel in an accessible manner. “We’re part of the Hong Kong Jewish calendar and also part of the Hong Kong cultural calendar, as important for Jews and local Hong Kongers,” he says.

The board under the HKJFF is made up of businessmen and veteran-figures in the Jewish community, a Hong Kong professor in cinema, and Eli Bitan.

A viewing committee of 10 view, rate, and process the selection of films, documentaries, and shorts for the annual final selection. After many years holding the festival, Eli comments that the most demanding thing to do is select the final grouping of films to be shown – there are usually an abundance of submissions from producers eager to have their films shown.

The 2021 edition is the first time in 22 years that the festival will split between two venues, with the Kennedy Town cinema offering “more cultural cache” for the return of the in-person festival.

The festival’s November selection will focus more on European-Jewish produced and directed films, as compared to previous years featuring more Israeli-released films. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected the Israeli film industry, stunting the domestic releases of feature films in 2020.

The HKJFF has partnered with important Jewish organizations in the community, such as the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre and the Jewish Womens Association, and the Asia Society, Goethe Institut, and Alliance Francaise to fund the operation of the festival.

Support from the Canadian, French, Danish, German, Israeli, Slovakian, Swiss, and U.S. consulates is provided in the form of sponsoring national films on show at the festival, as well as hosting of official delegations.

In previous years, the festival has hosted directors, producers, film critics, and curators to lend their knowledge of the films presented. However, with consideration of border controls, the board of the HKJFF decided to keep the event to local audiences only.

The 2020 edition was shown online, in respect to social distancing measures placed in November 2020 by the government.

“I never wanted to [host an] online festival, it goes against the principles of a festival: the discussions, gathering, creating a place where people meet,” Eli says. Despite social distancing in Hong Kong preventing an in-person festival, Eli felt it was his duty to provide an outlet to his community and those beyond to present the films that they have been showing for the past 20 years.

However, Eli was adamant to return to an in-person event, rather than a hybrid format, for the 2021 edition of festival to “go back to basics” and host one for mixing of Jews and non-Jews.

The opening night of the film festival, held at Golden Scene Cinema, will show four screenings of “Neighbours” to audiences, from 7:30 PM to 8 PM. Private transportation will bring guests after the screenings to a private event at the California Tower in Central for talks and a kosher desert buffet.

Tickets for the opening night and films are available through the HKJFF’s website.

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