Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival

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Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival founder Howard Elias and chairwoman Debby Amias look back at the festival’s humble beginnings and its journey to become the most famous festival of its kind in Asia. By Ben Sin

Though there are only an estimated 2,500 people living in Hong Kong who identify themselves as Jewish – a tiny fraction of Hong Kong’s seven million-plus residents, making Jews one of the biggest minorities here – our city has done a remarkable job of upholding Jewish culture. We have Asia’s grandest and oldest synagogue, the Ohel Leah Synagogue, and up until last month’s Beijing Jewish Film Festival, the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival was the only game in Asia. 

That, for 13 years, the only festival dedicated to Jewish culture on this side of the world could be found in Hong Kong is a testament to our city’s prestigious film heritage and diverse cultural acceptance. And to think, all of this started because one man wanted to watch some Jewish films.

“When I started the festival, I never gave any thought to whether anyone else would be interested in this genre of film,” explains Howard Elias, a Toronto-born expat who works in marketing. “I did it for myself, because I wanted to watch Jewish films.” 

With help from a friend and the various local consulates, Elias called and sent a bunch of faxes – hey, it was the year 2000, a time of primitive technology – to filmmakers and distributors around the world. And thus, on May 13, 2000, the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival was born. Held at the Jewish Community Centre, it had an average attendance of 29 people per screening, and much to Elias’ surprise, not all of them were Jewish. That was when he realised there was an interest in the films outside of Hong Kong’s small Jewish community. 

“I then made a conscious choice to [put more effort into next year’s event] and be a leading Jewish film festival,” Elias says. First, he made an effort to add Chinese subtitles to the next year’s lineup of films. Then Elias began travelling to film festivals around Europe to screen and pick up Jewish-themed films. Every year, the festival grew in scope and attendance.

Today, the HKJFF is considered one of the most prominent Jewish film festivals in the entire world, with last year’s event attracting over 250 people for the opening screening alone.

Festival chairwoman Debby Amias estimates that nearly half of the HKJFF’s audiences are non-Jews now. She also says the festival is not only one of the highlights of the year for Jews in Hong Kong,
but also an opportunity for the Jewish community to reach out to local Hongkongers: “It’s a way to share our history, culture, humour and pride.”

Some of the films in this year’s lineup, such as the award-winning documentary The Last Survivor, are Holocaust-themed, and will be shown at local schools to spread the message of tolerance and understanding of different cultures. 

The ace of this year’s festival, though, is Aftermath, the highly controversial Polish film that depicts the real-life torture and massacre of over 300 Jews in the small town of Jedwabne during the summer of 1941. In Poland, the crime was blamed on the Germans until 2001, when a scholar revealed that most of the killers were actually Polish gentiles. Aftermath is the first film in the country’s history to depict this truth, and naturally, it’s divided the nation, with the film’s director receiving death threats.

Elias, of course, wanted to bring Aftermath here to Hong Kong, but wasn’t sure the Polish Consulate would allow it to happen. “I’m very grateful to Mark Jenke, the consul-general of Poland in Hong Kong, for not only allowing us to bring Aftermath, he championed the move!”

It’s not all gloom and doom though. This year’s lineup also features quirky comedies such as Putzel and The World is Funny, the latter being Israel’s biggest hit of 2012. In all, the HKJFF features 21 films from nine countries. Amias calls this year’s lineup the festival’s most diverse. “There’s something for everyone,” she says.

And then, of course, there’s the legendary Kosher dessert party that opens the festival. Something for everyone, indeed.  

Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival Various AMC Cinemas, Nov 16-24. Visit hkjff.org for screening and ticket details.

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