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How to run a Jewish film festival in Charlotte during a nationwide rise in antisemitism

Films that help create understanding across cultures is important for the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, taking place Feb. 5-27. Cinema Sabaya is a 2021 film about Arab and Jewish women in a filmmaking workshop.
Green Productions
Films that help create understanding across cultures is important for the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, taking place Feb. 5-27. Cinema Sabaya is a 2021 film about Arab and Jewish women in a filmmaking workshop.

Traditionally, the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival has attracted an older, mostly Jewish crowd. But Susan Cherin, the festival’s director, is showcasing a diverse set of filmmakers and gathering people of all ages, religions and cultural groups. 

Given recent increases in antisemitism, creating unity is especially important, Cherin said. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 12% increase in acts of assault, vandalism and harassment. It was the highest level since the organization began tracking in 1979.

“People outside the Jewish community really minimize the situation,” Cherin said. “They just don't get it. They're not afraid to go into church. That’s the negative way of looking at it. And the positive way of looking at it is that it’s allowing the horrors of the world to change what you do. Not going to or not having the festival or choosing not to continue on and find a way to handle it is like giving your oppressors the power.”

That’s why Cherin and her fellow organizers feel so committed to continue on with the event.

The Levine Jewish Community Center has hosted the festival for 18 years, but COVID made it go virtual in the last two years. The goal is to show films relevant not only to Jewish people, but to diverse groups experiencing their own unique challenges. She said she strongly believes the film festival brings together different cultures and communities.

This year, the online festival is showing 18 films, including two television series. The event started Saturday and runs through Feb. 27. Viewers can buy a virtual pass to watch all of the films for $160, or purchase passes for individual films. The films originate from throughout the world.

“It's more important for people to gather. It's important for the strength of those cultural events to carry on,” Cherin said. “It’s one of the great community events that we have all year that really draws from a lot of the different pockets of the Jewish community in Charlotte.”

A key festival goal is uniting cultures and communities throughout Charlotte, she said, explaining that the selection committee chooses films that involve and interface with all kinds of people. They include global cultures and nationalities, people with disabilities and people with mental health struggles.

“We have partnered with the LGBTQ+ Film Festival on several events over the last handful of years,” she said. “The sports world, definitely the culinary world, and films that interface with the Black community or people of color, any marginalized communities. We did a Nelson Mandela film, we did a Sammy Davis Jr. film, things like that where we're interfacing with the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture.”  

The film topics sometimes cause discomfort in viewers. When that occurs, Cherin applauds it.

“I'm sort of famous for standing up and saying that if you are upset by the movie, that means we did our job,” Cherin said – growth often occurs when people learn about others who differ from themselves.

Continuing the event virtually carries positive and negative impacts. An online festival keeps building new connections and understanding, she said. But recent concerns about security and safety mean that ticket sales probably would have declined this year in an in-person format.

Cherin sees the diverse set of films as a way to promote cultural understanding in a challenging climate. The ultimate goal, she said, is for the festival to be “a tiny little part in trying to make what we like to call a healthier Charlotte, a safer Charlotte.”

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Ethan Rudnet is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.