The Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival: Celebrating Judaism and Creating Community

Since 2003, the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival has been fostering community and celebrating Judaism with the Santa Barbara County public. This year, the festival will be showcasing a number of films created by Jewish people from all walks of life. According to the Jewish Federation of the Greater Santa Barbara County, the festival strives to honor “Jewish history, culture, and identity while hoping that the films and their stories will resonate beyond these settings and speak to universal experiences and issues that confront our common humanity.”

The festival, organized and hosted by the Jewish Federation of the Greater Santa Barbara County, is held in March. Twelve full-length feature films are screened each year as well as a number of short films. This year the films include: “Forgiveness (Mechila),” “Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” “The Rabbi from Hezbollah,” “Those Who Remained,” “Chewdaism,” and “Golda’s Balcony.” The films come from a multitude of countries, representing Judaism from many perspectives and displaying the intricacies and enrichment of Jewish history and culture. 

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In the last five years, the festival has undergone a major transformation in terms of film selection and representation, according to marketing and communications director Briana Tivey. Within the international Jewish community, there are many stories from a wide variety of perspectives that deserve a space to be heard. Representation of diversity in the festival comes primarily from the film selection process. Tivey said, “Films are selected by a committee of six people. The committee looks for diversity of genre.” The selection process has been updated to include selection based on quality of production, lack of bias or one-sidedness, diversity in gender of filmmakers, and a range of both local and international films. Film is the best medium to represent and spread awareness of the Jewish culture because it is visible, accessible and most importantly “because it contains emotion and diversity,” Tivey said. “Israel, much like America, is a melting pot.” Through the use of film, the festival brings together a community of people from all walks of life whether they are passionate about Judaism, film, or both.

Perhaps the most critically acclaimed and popular film being presented at the festival is “Golda’s Balcony,” which was filmed, directed, and produced by David Fishelson. The film explores the life of the first and only female Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. According to Fishelson, “Golda’s Balcony” has appeared in 75 Jewish film festivals around the world, representing over half of the Jewish film festivals that exist internationally. 

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The film itself is a compilation of two tapings of the original performance of “Golda’s Balcony." Written by William Gibson and starring Tovah Feldshuh, “Golda’s Balcony” is the longest running one-woman play in Broadway history. Fishelson, who produced the original off-Broadway production, cut and edited the previously filmed footage, compiling it into what became an award-winning film. 

Fishelson, who identifies as Jewish, explains that his interest in creating the film stemmed directly from his passion for his heritage. “Saying you’re Jewish is like saying your Italian. It's a nationality,” Fishelson said. According to Fishelson, Judaism is unique in that it is one of a few nationalities that has a religion attached to it. Resulting from the rich and often tragic history of this nationality and community, the Jewish Film Festival has grown into the largest film niche across the globe. In light of the Jewish Film Festival boom, Fishelson created the film, curious as to how a Jewish audience would respond. To his surprise, the film became a huge success, winning Audience preference awards in 27% of the Jewish Film Festivals it was admitted to internationally. 

“Golda’s Balcony is the Cinderella film of this year’s Jewish film festival circuit,” Fishelson said. “It’s not of interest to other film festivals because [the film] is not good quality. What makes the film good is the content.” When Golda Meir tells the story of her life, “She is telling the story of the Jewish people. That’s the secret sauce of the movie."

As for Fishelson’s future goals for the film, he hopes to obtain the rights to the footage itself in 2025, and then sell the film to Netflix so it can live forever. However, Fishelson does not intend to profit from the film. Currently, Fishelson does not charge for the film, and plans for this to continue. For Fishelson, the film is intended to provide “future generations with a positive, pro-Israel figure” to look up to. Fishelson hopes to inspire young Jewish people to create an ongoing dialogue, fostering a knowledge and love for their nationality and culture. 

The Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival runs March 11-15 at the Ensemble Theater in downtown Santa Barbara. All access passes can be purchased on the festival website for $118 prior to the event and tickets for individual films will be sold for $12 on the day of the screening. The Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara County invites all audiences to come see, learn, and be entertained.