After 30 years, Berkshire Jewish Film Festival is the little festival that could
PITTSFIELD — By her own acknowledgment, Margery Metzger says she's not a film fanatic; never has been.
She may not be fanatic but she knows a lot more about film now than she did 30 years ago when, as a member of the Hebrew school committee at Congregation Knesset Israel on Colt Road, she volunteered to work with the school's director, Zev Raviv, on creating and running a summer festival of Jewish films.
"I was basically a go-for," Metzger said during a recent interview in KI's downstairs chapel.
It was a rough-hewn challenge
"We couldn't preview the prints," Metzger said. "These were old films and many of them, most, in fact, hadn't been restored. Some weren't compatible with our projector."
Raviv ran the film festival for five years until he left KI.
"Zev moved on," Metzger said, "but we decided we didn't want to give up. So, we basically started from scratch."
That was 25 years ago. Metzger took the reigns and tnihing has been the same since.
"Once I make my mind up about something," she said, "I don't let go."
In the 25 years since Metzger took over programming, the festival has grown almost exponentially — upgraded equipment; new films; wide-ranging subjects and film genres; a move from KI's sanctuary to its social hall, and then, 10 years ago, the biggest move of all — from KI in Pittsfield to the 500-seat capacity Duffin Theatre at Lenox Memorial High School. This year's 30th anniversary festival began July 11. By the time it wraps up on Aug. 15 with a 4 p.m. screening of "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy," which examines the role of Jewish lyricists and composers in developing the American musical theater; and, at 8 p.m., Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," BJFF will have shown 12 feature-length narratives and documentaries and two shorts from the United States and abroad over six Monday afternoon and evenings.
Proceeds all benefit KI's Hebrew school.
"It's the perfect place for us," Metzger said of Lenox Memorial High School. "It's centrally located; there is good parking and excellent technical support. And we can accommodate many more people."
Attendance at Monday matinees average between 300 and 350, Metzger said. Evening screenings average 500, which means many programs are sold out. And because tickets are sold only at the door, it is not uncommon to have long lines of people extending out the door.
It's been a lesson in human behavior, Metzger said, laughing as she spun off an anecdote or two about the lengths to which some people have gone to get into a sold-out program.
Running a film festival was not even the faintest blip on Metzger's radar and when she and her husband, Alan, moved to the Berkshires 37 years ago.
A social worker by profession, Metzger came to study with myotherapist and physical fitness pioneer Bonnie Prudden (who died in December 2011 at the age of 97).
"Among the things I learned from her was 'know your audience,'" Metzger said.
"We want variety," she said. "There are only so many documentaries you can show; so many films about the Holocaust.
"A lot of these films are universal. We want to appeal to a general audience."
Metzger now augments much of the program with post-screening discussions led by notable scholars, filmmakers, various experts — often via Skype.
Festival planning typically begins in November. For this year's festival Metzger saw 115 films, from which she selected 12 full-length documentaries and narratives and two shorts.
Metzger heads a film selection committee of five, including herself, "but I see all the films."
The film festival's coordinator is Ed Udel. There are hosts of others involved with publicity, staffing, advertising.
"We're all volunteers," Metzger said.
Their work has paid off. Last year alone, the festival raised $30,000 for KI's Hebrew school.
At the age of 30, Berkshire Jewish Film Festival is, Metzger says, the oldest Jewish film festival in the country. It has been so successful Metzger says she routinely fields inquiries from others from all over the country seeking advice on starting their own festivals.
"I usually ask three questions to help them decide what kind of festival they want to run," Metzger said. "I ask:
'Do you want to make money with your festival or do you want to provide a service for something?'
'Do you want tourists to come?'
and 'Do you want to stretch the festival over a period of days or, as we do, weekly for a certain number of weeks?'
"Everyone has to make their own determination. As far as we are concerned, I think we've gotten to where we want and need to be. We've found a formula that's worked for us.
"We want to stimulate conversation. We want to stay relevant."
And affordable. With admission to the evening screenings holding at $10, BJFF has raised the price of admission for the afternoon screenings this year from $5 to $7.
"How may things in the Berkshires are that affordable?" Metzger asked, almost rhetorically.
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