The Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival continued its 13-year mission of spreading awareness about Jewish culture on Jan. 16, and will continue until Jan. 20 at the Manship Theatre downtown.
The first film of the festival is Big Sonia, a documentary featuring 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski. Warshawski has been a tailor for 35 years and speaks with different groups about her experiences in the concentration camps.
The documentary weaves together different parts of her life, showing her in her Kansas City tailor shop inside an empty mall. She also speaks to students and prisoners about her time in the concentration camps and spends time with her family.
The audience seemed to enjoy the film, laughing at many of Warshawski’s quirks and clapping as the credits rolled. Vernon Blalock said he has been to this festival every year and Big Sonia was the best film yet. Blalock’s mother was a Holocaust survivor and her father died in the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.
“[Sonia] reminded me so much of my mom,” Blalock said. “From the time I was a little boy, she would tell us what she went through.”
Ara Rubyan, co-chair of the festival, said films need to have certain qualities in order to be considered, such as being professionally produced, taking place in Israel, being made by a Jewish director or simply featuring Jewish people and their lives. A film does not need all these traits to be shown, but they are a starting point for Rubyan and his wife Julie Hoffman.
“The main thing though is it's got to have some emotional impact, and the main emotion is empathy,” Rubyan said.
The festival has been held annually in the Manship Theatre since 2006. Rubyan said Julie's parents Paula and Harvey Hoffman started it. When Harvey passed away in 2011, Rubyan and Julie began planning the festival while Paula raised funds for the festival.
“Paula does maybe the most important thing for the festival which is fundraising,” Rubyan said. “If you know anything about film festivals, you know that it can’t survive on just ticket sales.”
Another viewer, Sylvia Martinez, said she thinks the festival is a wonderful addition to Baton Rouge.
“One of the things that really struck me was the effects of the Holocaust on the next generation of survivors,” Martinez said.
Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival uses the proceeds from ticket sales and donations to fund educational opportunities about the Holocaust for children and teenagers, Rubyan said. The students go to a Holocaust museum and even listen to a survivor if possible, much like the students in Big Sonia.
Despite Baton Rouge’s small Jewish population and his belief that anti-Semitism is on the rise, Rubyan said he and the Hoffmans were never discouraged from running the festival. Rubyan just wants others to see that Jewish people go through many of the same life experiences as everyone else.
“I love to see films that imagine a future in which both sides are reconciled and are living together in a peaceful way,” Rubyan said. “When you see someone in a Jewish-themed story — when you see them up on the screen — you’re gonna go, ‘Hey, that’s a person just like me.’”
The Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival runs from Jan. 16-20 at the Manship Theatre in downtown Baton Rouge. Showtimes, movie trailers and tickets can be found at brjff.com.