Festival brings Jewish film culture to Alaska Interior

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Almost a decade ago, Janet Schichnes and her husband Jerry Lipka caught the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, a cultural feast far removed from Fairbanks, their adopted home in Alaska's isolated Interior.

"It was huge. It was a lot of fun," Schichnes said. "My husband said, 'We could do this on a smaller scale."'

And thus was born the Farthest North Jewish Film Festival, currently in its eighth year in a town known more for its frontier brawn than international sophistication.

With a five-night run wrapping up Sunday, the festival has grown in offerings and venues over the years, despite the region's tiny Jewish population. Among the 87,000 residents within the Fairbanks North Star Borough, only 540 are Jews, according to a national survey conducted in 2000-2001 by the United Jewish Communities. Many - like Newark, N.J. native Schichnes - are transplants.

Some of the audience comes from event sponsor Congregation Or HaTzafon, the only synagogue in the 7,400-square-mile borough. But the appeal goes beyond the 65 households represented by the synagogue, said festival committee member Gerry Berman, a sociology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He attributed the festival's growth to the city's "cosmopolitan community," particularly from the university.

"It's not just for Jewish people," he said. "Probably half the people who come are not Jewish, although we don't check their religion at the door."

Berman, originally from the Detroit area, has lived in Fairbanks for 25 years, but has dual citizenship in Israel, where his filmmaker wife and son live. He attends foreign film events, including the Jerusalem Film Festival each summer, and views as many as two dozen comedies, dramas, documentaries and shorts each year to help the Fairbanks festival committee select a varied lineup.

"We try to show entertaining and interesting films," Berman said. "We're not pushing any kind of Judaism."

Not counting the current festival, organizers have screened 70 films since the 1999 start of the event. Half of the films shown have been purchased and donated to the UAF library so the public can enjoy them later as well.

Festival-goers are asked to donate $10 a night to help defray some of the costs involved. Even so, no one is making a profit on the event, but that's not the point, according to committee members.

"We like doing it," Schichnes said. "We like getting movies people would never get a chance to see."

Among the nine films and two shorts selected this year are "Go for Zucker," a German-Jewish comedy that won six Lolas, the German Oscar; "Paper Clips," a documentary about students in a small Tennessee town who collected millions of paper clips to represent victims of the Holocaust; and "Wondrous Oblivion," about the young son of Jewish refugees who is obsessed with playing cricket in his London neighborhood.

Closing the event Sunday night is "Making Choices, the Dutch Resistance during World War II," a documentary featuring survivors of the resistance who helped hide Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Afterward, filmmaker Rob Prince will lead a panel discussion.

Prince, of Dutch ancestry, completed the film last year for his master's thesis at Michigan State University in East Lansing. His subjects were four local residents who had gone through the Dutch Resistance, including an 84-year-old woman who was involved in hiding dozens of people in northern Holland. The 57-minute film won the audience award last fall at the Northern Lights Documentary Film Festival in Newburyport, Mass.

Now an assistant journalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Prince was surprised to hear a Jewish film festival existed in the heart of Alaska.

He was even more surprised when he was invited to show his work at this year's event.

"It's really an honor to be asked to be the closing film for the festival," he said. "It's sort of like a girl not only saying she'll go out with you, but also that she'll pay."

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