The Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 20th event

Festival founder Howard Elias spoke at the Shabbat Dinner on the eve of the Festival’s 20th edition, on November 1, 2019. Here is his speech:

Shabbat shalom everyone.

Congratulations to all those who were involved in putting this wonderful dinner together.

What I’m sure that many of them and many of you don’t know is that I created this dinner event as an adjunct to the film festival way back in 2001.  That first dinner was held down the hall in the King David Room.  Along with our film guests – German-Jewish journalist, author, and TV personality, Henryk Broder; and the then young filmmaker and now big-time TV producer Akiva Potok, who is noted author Chaim Potok’s son – there was a mere handful of enthusiastic festival supporters including the then head of the Goethe-Institut in Hong Kong, Jurgen Keil, and his amazing wife, Lise, who have remained my good friends today.  Of course, my best friend, Hannelore Hartig, was there too, as she was right from the start of this fantastic voyage into uncharted territory.  Over the years, these dinners grew rapidly in both number and in the diversity of our guests, and it didn’t take long before we outgrew both the King David and Coffee Shop, and had to move to the larger Garden Room downstairs.  I’m so happy to see that my idea is just as popular as ever.

The other day I saw a young man on the MTR wearing a t-shirt that read, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”.  While that certainly is an inspirational quote, perhaps chutzpah, or nerve, is as important as wonder.  Chutzpah is daring to ask “Why?”, or as we Jews like to ask, “Why not?”, and daring to go down a path where you’ve never gone before.  Chutzpah certainly was how the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival came into being.  Chutzpah combined with a strong dose of naïveté.  The seed for a Jewish film festival in Hong Kong was planted when Hannelore and I attended the European Film Festival way back in September 1999.  We were flipping through their program when I noticed that we had missed seeing a Jewish-themed film from Belgium.  I distinctly remember saying to Hannelore that it was too bad that we didn’t know about the film screening sooner as we would have gone.  I then followed that up with the very chutzpahdik (nervy) and naïve comment of “Let’s start our own film festival.  How hard can it be?  It can’t be any harder than planning a party.”  And with that, the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival was born.  P.S.: It’s much harder than planning a party, at least it was back in 1999.

The biggest problem back then was that the Internet was in its infancy.  Very few companies had websites; very few people had email; some of the things that we take for granted today, like Facebook, YouTube, Google and WhatsApp didn’t yet exist; and Amazon, which was a money-losing company back then, had just bought the Internet Movie Database.  There were barely ten independent Jewish Film Festivals at that time so there wasn’t much information on Jewish films to be readily found.  (Today there are over 100 such festivals around the world.)  Fortunately, though, there was Oprah Winfrey.  One day, a few months after I made the decision to start a festival, I happened to be home from work and I thought I’d watch her TV talk show.  Her topic that day was “Family Secrets” and her first guest was a young filmmaker from Baltimore by the name of Lisa Lewenz.  Lisa grew up as an Episcopalian and a few years earlier, her father, who had immigrated to the US from Germany just before the start of WWII, made a death bed confession to her.  He told her that he was a Jew.  Fast forward a couple years and when Lisa was cleaning out her parents’ home in preparation for selling it, she found a box of 8 mm colour film in the attic.  What she discovered were her grandmother’s home movies from inter-war Berlin, just as Hitler and the Nazis had come to power.  This was no tiny discovery though.  Back in 1920s and ’30s, 8 mm colour film was a rarity, women filmmakers like Lisa’s grandmother, Ella Arnhold Lewenz, were even more of a rarity and, perhaps most interestingly, the Lewenzes’ circle of close friends included the likes of Albert Einstein; the founder of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius; and Austrian socialist politician, Friedrich Adler.  Lisa took her grandmother’s movies, hired a German lip reader to decipher what the people in the films were saying, flew to Berlin to retrace her grandmother’s footsteps and craft it all into her own multi-award winning documentary called A LETTER WITHOUT WORDS.

I was gobsmacked, as the British like to say, and I knew I had to have this movie for our first festival, which was set for May 2000.  Through a lot of sleuthing, I tracked down Lisa’s phone number and I gave her a call.  Can you imagine what must have been going through her mind?  “Hi, Lisa.  My name is Howard Elias.  I’m a Jew living in Hong Kong and I’m starting up a Jewish film festival here next year.  I saw you on Oprah the other day – yes, we have Oprah in Hong Kong too – and I’d like to open the festival with your film.  I’d also like you to come here and present your film to our audience.  Thankfully, Lisa was game.  She came and presented her film, our audience loved both it and her, and Lisa and I are still friends today.  By the way, if you’ve been paying attention, you would have noticed that I said that Lisa’s grandmother’s maiden name was Arnhold, which happens to be the same name as the company now owned by Michael & Judy Green.  Jacob Arnhold, who founded the company that bears his name, was Lisa’s great-grandfather’s first cousin so it really was beshert (destiny) that I was home that day when Lisa was on Oprah’s show.

That first festival, 19½ years ago, was something!  It took place next door in the JCC Auditorium and our average attendance for each of the nine films we screened was 29.  There was no such thing as DVDs back then.  Everything was on film – 35 mm for new films and 16 mm for old ones.  While the JCC had purchased a pair of film projectors four years earlier, they had never been used.  I had to find someone to come in and service them and I also had to hire someone who knew how to run them in sync.  The latter was not an easy task as every projectionist in HK works in the evenings.  The auditorium’s air conditioning had just two settings – off and ice cold – and the switch was very inconveniently located in a utility room rather than in the auditorium itself.  I got a lot of exercise that year schlepping heavy boxes of film around town and running around making sure that the few people who did come out to see the films weren’t either freezing or melting.  Even though anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, the festival was a hit with the audience and I decided to have another one the following year, this time in March 2001 so that it wouldn’t clash with the seven-week period in the Jewish calendar when religiously observant Jews don’t dance, listen to music or go to the cinema.  Little did I know at the time that if these members of our community weren’t going to go to a film festival during the Counting of the Omer (as it is called), they weren’t going to go any other time either.

That second festival was held at the wonderfully run-down Cine-Art House in Wanchai, which is now long gone.  Naively thinking that I was now an expert in putting on a film festival, I decided to programme 28 long and short films for that event.  That was a huge mistake as the work required to bring a film to a festival is the same regardless of its length.  To add to my woes, the event was nearly cancelled two months before when I received a phone call from my contact at the British Council telling me that the Film Department of the government’s Office of Telecommunications (Ofta) needed to approve all the films before we could show them.  I didn’t know this at the time but if you want to show a film in a public venue, which Cine-Art was but the JCC isn’t, it needs to go through censorship and receive a rating… and that costs money… more money than the festival’s whole budget was.  Fortunately, I managed to convince the people at Ofta that the festival was a non-profit, which avoided us being charged for their services, but it also meant that I had to schlep those heavy boxes of films to their office at Revenue Tower and then beg them to watch and rate the films immediately.  Incredibly, everything came together at the last minute and the festival’s attendance doubled that year as many people heard me speak about the event on RTHK Radio 3 or they read about it in HK Magazine, bc Magazine, The Standard, the SCMP and even the Ta Kung Pao.  The festival and I were everywhere that year as people, especially those outside the Jewish community, embraced the idea of a Jewish film festival in Hong Kong.  Even some overseas papers like the Canadian Jewish News covered the event.

After that second festival, I finally accepted the reality that I didn’t know everything there was to know about running a film festival and I decided to attend the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which is the oldest of the Jewish film festivals.  Next year will be their 40th year.  It was an eye-opening experience as they let me go behind the scenes to see how a professional festival operates.  I also got to meet a number of Jewish film festival organisers from all over North America, many of whom I call my friends today, and they became a great resource to me over the years when I was running this event.  The biggest thing I learned there, though, was that there are two kinds of festivals in the world – the ones that innovate and the ones that copy.  Up to that point, our festival was a copier but I felt that our audience and our community deserved better than that.  I didn’t want to show the films that someone’s aunt in London or Washington saw at her city’s Jewish film festival the year before.  I wanted the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival to be a festival that programs films and has guests that our audience members could tell their aunts wherever they live to get for their city’s festivals.  To do that, I realised I needed to network with filmmakers, distributors and government film offices around the world, and attend international film festivals like the Berlinale and Cannes where many distributors of Jewish-themed films also attend.  While many on my board thought I was only going to these high profile events just to sip champagne with Brad Pitt and Paris Hilton, and dance the night away at the parties hosted by Variety and Versace, I can assure you that I was there to learn and work, and work I did, often watching four or five films a day over the course of the week and running from meeting to meeting with distributors in between.  It certainly helped me understand how to make our event one of the world’s premier Jewish film festivals, which it became under my leadership.

In spite of numerous potholes in the road, the festival kept growing, moving to the IFC in 2006 and then to Pacific Place in 2009.  In the festival’s early years, it was very difficult to get distributors to send me their preview videotapes and DVDs, which are called screeners.  A Jewish film festival in Hong Kong, they all wondered?  But as our reputation grew, distributors and filmmakers started sending me their screeners even before I would ask.  Suddenly everyone wanted their film to be in our festival, and big name actors and actresses from Hollywood to Herzliya wanted to come to meet our audiences and answer their questions.

I’ve been asked many times over the years about my proudest festival moments.  Without a doubt, the highlight was the outdoor presentation of the restored 1922 silent film, BREAKING HOME TIES, which we screened with a live, 4-piece musical ensemble led by Israeli musician and composer, Amit Weiner.  When I approached Amit in Jerusalem a few days after he performed solo at the film’s world premiere there in July 2011, he thought my idea was completely bonkers.  He had never envisioned expanding his musical score to include three additional instruments and performing it to an audience under the stars in Hong Kong.  But, like Lisa, he too was game and he came through with flying colours.  The event, which took place 16 months later at Cyberport for the festival’s bar mitzvah year, was truly magical.  Unlike what happened at our first festival, anything that could have gone wrong went right this time.  Because of that experience, Amit now regularly travels around the world playing his original compositions at Holocaust memorial events, and concerts and master classes organised by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  In another instance of beshert, a year after our event I met up with Amit in Israel along with my brother and sister-in-law who live there too.  It turns out that Amit was my nephew’s high school music teacher a few years earlier.

Other memorable moments for me were our klezmer dance party in 2002 with musician, ethnomusicologist and documentary filmmaker Yale Strom, and his band, Hot Pstromi, which was attended by the then Secretary for Security Regina Yip; there was our oversold screening of THE MASCOT in 2004, where people were sitting on the floor much to the distress of the cinema operator because we were breaking the fire code; there was our Asian premiere of BORAT at the Palace IFC Cinema in 2007 complete with branded lime green mankinis and beach bags being given out to the audience; there was our kosher deli night in 2007 to go with our screening of CHEZ SCHWARTZ, which was about Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal; there was our festival’s first binge screening event of the steamy Israeli TV series, A TOUCH AWAY, in 2009; and there was our screening of the emotionally stirring film, AN ARTICLE OF HOPE, at the City Hall Theatre in 2011.  I remember telling the board that I wanted to open our festival that year with this film and many of them scrunched up their noses saying, “Who wants to see a film about a dead Israeli astronaut?” Well, 400 people did and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the film’s closing credits ran.  Just last week someone told me how much they loved that movie and how proud they were to see it at our festival.

And then there are our many film guests who joined us over the years, including actor Dvir Benedek, who is the face and voice of Bank Mizrachi in Israel; Rona Ramon obm, the widow of Colonel Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut; brothers Doron & Yoav Paz, who are now recognized around the world as leading filmmakers in the zombie genre; Canadian David Bezmozgis, who has gone on to win multiple awards for his fiction writing; American Sandi DuBowski, whose groundbreaking film, TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, launched discussions in hundreds of communities about LGBTQI Orthodox Jews; Algerian-born Muslim filmmaker Safinez Bousbia, who introduced us to wonderful chaabi music and the Jewish and Muslim musicians she reunited after being apart for 50 years for a series of concerts for her film, EL GUSTO; Australian Alex Kurzem who, as a 6-year-old in WWII Belarus, became a Jewish mascot for the Nazi army in Latvia; little 8-year-old Chen Baoqi, the adorable Chinese star of the Israeli film, NOODLE; New Zealand documentarian Danny Mulheron, who introduced me to his amazing Jewish-Maori friend who had just made a fabulous film called BOY that I should check out (do you know who I’m referring to?); and, of course, the first lady of Israeli cinema, Gila Almagor, who really is a gracious lady.  I have wonderful stories about all of them and others but if I share them with you now, we’ll be here until next Sunday at least.

While it may have looked to many that this was a one-man effort, I can assure you that it wasn’t.  So many people helped me along the way, for which I am forever grateful, but I’m only going to single out a few key ones here.  At the top of the list is my Second Banana, Hannelore Hartig who, as I said at the outset was with me through every step.  As many of you will remember, Hannelore was the smiling face who manned the ticket desk at the cinemas for many years.  Behind the scenes, she looked after our guests while I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  She did late night airport runs, sealed envelopes and licked stamps, arranged Macher Pass and VIP seating, managed the Opening Night Kosher Dessert Parties (another of my inventions) and, most importantly, kept me from killing a few people who promised to help but didn’t.  I’d also like to thank Richard Winston for his steadfast support especially when a few petty souls were determined to bring me down; my good friend and fellow film lover Jorge Moya (and thanks to Hayley Goldberg for introducing us), who was my right-hand man after Hannelore left Hong Kong; Mary Ann Pun and Reese Lee, who translated our films into Chinese year after year without asking a penny for their efforts; graphic designer Lawrence Choy, who came up with the festival’s original blue-and-orange logo that was filled with so much symbolism and meaning, as well as creating our eye-catching cover designs and posters year after year, all without charge; Bob Meyer, for his sage advice over the years; Phil Whelan and Hugh Chiverton of RTHK, who kicked off my radio career; Glenn Timmermans, who helped me take the festival to Macau for three years and made it a huge success there too; Judy & Michael Green and Lori Ormut-Durbin & Michael Durbin, who were a source of support and inspiration right from the start; the many consuls-general and cultural office directors over the years who believed in and supported my crazy vision; Ornit Avidar, who in those early years would call the Israeli film distributors for me and convince them to send me their films; Neill Morgan and the staff at the JCC, who never said no to my ideas no matter how “different” they were; Eyal and Orit Ginati, who ensured that all our food events were not only strictly kosher, they looked beautiful too; and finally my brother Myron, who came from Israel on his own shekel not once but twice to help me with the festival’s logistics and act as a tour guide around HK and Macau for our guests.

I am humbled that the seed that I had the chutzpah to plant 20 years ago and that others lovingly nurtured with me over the years has grown into a beautiful tree.  May the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival continue to go from strength to strength.  I wish everyone an enjoyable festival this week.  Thank you.

Do you have any memories of the festival’s early years that you would like to share? If so, we’d like to hear from you! Photos are welcome too.