The 20th annual Jewish Film Festival kicks off this weekend

Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon star in the romantic comedy “Keep the Change,” screening as part of the Louisville Jewish Film Festival, which kicks off this weekend.

Almost everyone who attended the five movies screened during the first Louisville Jewish Film Festival was a member of the local Jewish community.

Now, as the festival marks its 20th anniversary, it has grown to encompass 11 screenings at five venues across the city and is attracting an increasingly diverse audience.

“When we first started off, our audiences were Jewish … coming to see the five films we offered,” says Marsha Bornstein, the festival’s executive director. “We’ve gone way beyond that, and that is critical, because … there is such power in film, that people will walk out and maybe change their perspective. Maybe it will make them a little more tolerant or understand more. This is what the arts aim to do.”

The year’s festival kicks off Saturday, Feb. 3, with a screening of “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a biography that encompasses the late performer’s entire career, including his conversion to Judaism. The screening at Bellarmine University’s Wyatt Hall will be accompanied by a catered reception in honor of the 20th anniversary landmark.

(Bornstein promises “some hoopla” for the $20 general admission fee at the door.)

“Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” will be featured at a kickoff screening and reception on Saturday, Feb. 3, at Bellarmine University’s Wyatt Hall.

The festival will run the rest of February, with screenings at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Speed Cinema, The Temple and six screenings at the festival’s traditional home, Village 8 Theatres. For a detailed schedule, ticket prices (which tend to run about $10) and advance ticket purchases, see the festival’s website.

The festival’s growth has been fueled by the commitment of its main sponsor, the Jewish Community Center of Louisville, to build partnerships with other arts organizations, says Bornstein, who has been the director since 2005.

“We are showing more and more films, and we are creating more and more collaborations and special events,” she says. “Our outreach has grown, and we continue to improve the diversity of our films and the audience we are reaching … The arts partners are all striving to get bigger audiences, but even more importantly, more diversity in their audience.”

The film selection process begins about 18 months before a given year’s first screenings. In fact, Bornstein says she is already doing homework for the 2019 event.

Her goal is to present the selection committee with 20 to 25 candidates that the members then rank in preference, with a couple alternates in case budget restrictions get in the way of presenting some films. In fact, Bornstein says she intentionally does not present screening fee information to committee members, because she wants the process to focus solely on the artistic merits of the films themselves.

The committee typically does try to select some films relating the Holocaust, which she says remains a “relevant and important issue,” as well as an assortment of comedies and dramas — any work festival organizers believe have artistic merit and fit into the mission of “building bridges and fostering communication,” Bornstein says.

“I tell them that it can’t just be your five favorite films,” she adds.

Bornstein’s personal favorite films in this year’s lineup illustrate the range of subject matter and creativity the selection committee aspires to.

“1945,” a story of postwar reckoning with the Holocaust, screens Feb. 15 at Speed Cinema.

1945” is a black-and-white Hungarian drama about a town’s reckoning with the atrocities of the Holocaust during the era of postwar Soviet occupation (Feb. 15 at Speed Cinema). The film is a hit with critics, scoring a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and winning Best Feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Bornstein also loves “Keep the Change,” writer/director Rachel Israel’s romantic comedy about two autistic young adults who meet in New York (Feb. 10 at Village 8). The leads are nonprofessional actors who are autistic themselves, and Bornstein says their performances make the film “such a miracle.”

She says this year’s committee ended up selecting the opening night films from the Atlanta (“Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me”) and San Francisco (“1945”) Jewish film festivals, illustrating Louisville’s commitment to bringing the best films to the city.

(Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed, tells Insider he is most interested in seeing “I’ve Gotta be Me” — “to discover how he thrived in spite of all of oppression of the time,” he says.)

This year, the festival adds a second free-admission showcase of student films, which Bornstein says have historically been a great vehicle for bringing a new audience to the festival. Three short films by students at Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and Arts will screen at The Temple on Monday, Feb. 19, while Speed Cinema will host a free matinée of eight student shorts from Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University on Sunday, Feb. 18.

Bornstein says the two selections of student works will vary notably in topical selection and style. Ma’aleh School is Orthodox, while the Tisch School has a more liberal philosophy. Case in point: One of the shorts screening during the Speed matinee features a graphic sex scene.

“They’re all just good films,” she says. “We want to represent a range of topics and viewpoints, but ultimately we want to select good films.”