The Gordon Center for Performing Arts at the JCC of Greater Baltimore will present the 29th annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival starting Sunday, March 19.
Running through Sunday, April 30, the festival — one of the oldest in the country — will screen nearly 20 short and feature films from around the world and will be bringing a number of special guests to take part in spirited question-and-answer sessions following certain showings.
“Baltimore is the cultural hub of the region,” said Alyson Bonavoglia, director of film festival & special projects at the Gordon, which is for the second time facilitating the BJFF.
“It’s a region that has one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities on the East, so it absolutely makes sense to have a Jewish film festival in Baltimore.”
“Even though, technically, we’re not actually in Baltimore,” Bonavoglia laughed about the Gordon’s being located in Owings Mills.
Seventy films were originally nominated (by word of mouth or direct submission) for the festival, and the selection committee made its decisions from July to November 2016.
“It was pretty obvious after all of the vetting which ones rose to the top,” Bonavoglia said.
One such film is director Laura Bialis’ documentary “Rock in the Red Zone,” which will have its Maryland premiere at the BJFF on Sunday, April 23 at 3 p.m.
“I’ve done a lot of films about Jewish subjects,” said Bialis, 43, who grew up in and still lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and will be coming out to the Gordon to speak at her screening. “They tend to be about human rights stuff.”
Bialis lived in Israel for 10 years to produce her film, which explores the unique music scene that has sprung up in the war-torn city of Sderot. Dangerously close to Gaza, Sderot has been pummeled by rocket fire for the past 15 years, and yet, what Bialis found there was “some of the most amazing music I had ever heard, coming from some of the most incredible bands.”
During the process of filming — which included learning Hebrew and becoming so ingrained in the community of Sderot that she began giving tours to other visiting Americans — Bialis also discovered a young singer-songwriter who became more than a large focus of her story.
Originally roommates who hadn’t known each other prior, Bialis and Avi Vaknin would become friends and then husband and wife over the span of the film’s chronicling of what eventually became a very personal journey for the director.
The two moved back to Bialis’ hometown so that she could tour around the country with her film (which premiered in the United States in November 2015) and husband Vaknin could play his music, often as a live-action part of the film screenings.
Scurrying away from rocket fire while running around with her camera was a challenge for Bialis that was only mitigated in part by the fantastic stories she heard and people she met, along with that singular music of those who had grown up ready to run at any moment from impending missile attacks.
“There were times that the rockets fell right across the street from our house,” Bialis said. “But since the most intimate stuff was just me and my camera and these people, I felt like I needed to be there. I became friends with all of these people, and it changed the film, making it what it is today.”
The 29th annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival will take place at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts from Sunday, March 19 to Sunday, April 30; tickets are $13 in advance, $15 at the door and $5 for students (at the door only, as available); for more information, visit gordoncenter.com.