by Robin Garbose
I write as I prepare to leave my home in Los Angeles for Israel – where I will not be a guest of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, as I had hoped, but rather a participant in alternative screenings of my film “A Light for Greytowers.”
“A Light for Greytowers” had originally been invited to screen at the festival, to be held next week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, based on its artistic merit, but was subsequently rejected because the film is intended for female audiences only. Instead, we will be showing it across the road, at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, on December 13 and 15, as well as at Beit Avi Chai, on December 14.
I understand that the film’s “special needs” posed a philosophical challenge for the festival, but my hope was that in Jerusalem, of all places, it might receive that extra consideration. “Greytowers” is a genuine work of art from a community that has not until now had a cinematic voice; it represents the voice of religious Jewish women who choose to live their lives according to the Jewish laws of modesty and who, consequently, do not sing or dance in front of men. I had hoped to use the festival’s forum as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about these religious practices, as per the festival’s stated mission “to explore the many and varied issues surrounding the question of Jewish identity, history, culture and religious practice.”
Film festivals are touted as hotbeds of artistic idealism, where filmmakers are encouraged to push the envelope thematically, technically and philosophically. Is “pushing the envelope” only to be applauded when the film involves graphic promiscuity or profanity? Needless to say, I was profoundly disappointed by the festival’s inability to find a place for us within its purported framework of “diversity.”
In the United States, we have just elected the first black president, but in Israel I, an Orthodox Jewish woman filmmaker with the first high-quality Orthodox Jewish women’s film, cannot find acceptance in the one festival where we most belong – the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival.
Based on a popular, much-loved novel by two wonderfully talented English women, Eva Vogiel and Ruth Steinberg, “A Light for Greytowers” is the Victorian-era saga of a Russian Jewish girl who is abandoned in an English orphanage. At the mercy of its cruel matron, she is forced to fight to keep her faith. The film is unapologetic in its love of Jewish life and passion for Jewish values. It is also funny and entertaining – a movie musical of the classic mode. So far, it has been successfully screened for thousands of women and girls in Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey, and its appeal is crossing all denominations.
In fact, we have seen that women from other religious groups relate to the film’s universal themes and values. As Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks ?(who is not Jewish?) put it, the film gives “mothers a reprieve from having to explain teen pop stars? drunk-driving arrests and pregnancies.” It should also be noted that in the U.S., the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is excited to include “Greytowers,” particularly for “the unique outreach opportunities this film presents.”
In one of my many appeals to the Jerusalem festival, I wrote, “You have deemed that Jewish art that comes from the religious community is acceptable only if it conforms to non-religious standards.” What the festival failed to realize is that the film’s unique charm and beauty are a direct result of the women and girls involved in it having been guaranteed that it would be viewed by women only.
I am sure that including “A Light for Greytowers” would have been a wonderful opportunity to fulfill the festival’s own mandate to promote “cross-cultural understanding.” It would have been gratifying had the festival board decided to be a little more open-minded, and found a comfortable way to market this historic and special movie.
Film is a medium of light. Our participation would surely have brought light to the “Greytowers” of polarization that exist between Jews. Even now, I still hold a small hope that they will find a way to include us. I still envision the opportunity for meaningful exchange through artistic expression.