a black and white illustration of an old woman doing a crossword
In a still from the documentary "Irmi," winner of a 2020 JFI Completion Grant award, an illustration depicts survivor Irmi Selver in her later years. (Photo/Courtesy Veronica Selver)

Jewish Film Institute announces completion grants to ‘secure the future of Jewish storytelling’

The San Francisco-based Jewish Film Institute has awarded grants that will allow six film projects to be completed and “help inspire and secure the future of Jewish storytelling.”

The grants, announced on July 13 and ranging from $6,000 to $25,000, will provide support to five feature-length documentaries and one narrative short.

Established on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, JFI’s Completion Grants Program is the only such annual award for Jewish-content films in the country. The grants support emerging and established filmmakers developing “original stories that promote thoughtful consideration of Jewish history, life, culture, and identity,” according to a press statement.

“We know that film has unparalleled power to open hearts and bridge differences,” Jewish Film Institute executive director Lexi Leban said in the statement. “Now more than ever, when artists are struggling and the world is in need of transformative storytelling, we are excited to be able to provide this much-needed resource to the diverse and talented body of filmmakers working with Jewish themes.”

One of the grants was awarded to Bay Area director Veronica Selver and co-director Susan Fanshel, for their documentary “Irmi,” based on the memoir by Selver’s mother about her escape from Hitler’s Europe and subsequent life story. Funds were already released so that the world premiere of the film could take place this weekend at “Cinegogue Summer Days,” the four-day virtual film festival being produced by JFI. While the film will be available for streaming all weekend starting July 16, the screening on July 17 at 3 p.m. will be followed by a Q&A with the directors. Free tickets are available.

The other five JFI 2020 Completion Grants were awarded to:

Nancy Buirski for her feature documentary “A Crime on the Bayou,” about a 1966 incident in which an argument between white and Black students outside a newly integrated school resulted in the disproportionate punishment of a Black teenager. Represented by Jewish attorney Richard Sobol, the fight went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Anika Benkov for her narrative short “The Binding of Itzik” about a Hasidic bookbinder who stumbles across a Craigslist ad offering “binding lessons for submissive women.”

Tessa Louise-Salomé, French director of the feature documentary “The Wild One,” a study of Hollywood filmmaker Jack Garfein, cofounder of Actors Studio West, whose experiences as a concentration camp survivor propelled his vision of acting as a vehicle of resilience.

Nate Lavey for “Those Who Heard and Those Who Saw,” a U.S.-Canadian co-production. The documentary tells the story of Jewish refugees who fled to the U.K. in 1940 and were sent to work in prison camps in Canada, and considers how their experiences connect to those of contemporary Syrian refugees in Canada.

Maya Zinshtein, Israeli director of “Til Kingdom Come,” a U.S.-Israel co-production about the relationship of American evangelical Christians with Israel.

The JFI Completion Grants program has been in development for several years, since the closure of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 2015 diminished important support for Jewish-content films. JFI’s initiative seeks to fill that gap and “a growing need for work that builds empathy and understanding within and beyond Jewish culture,” according to its statement.

Along with several other JFI awards, the Completion Grants will be presented officially during the virtual closing ceremony of “Cinegogue Summer Days” on July 19 at 6:45 p.m. Excerpts of the works in progress will be streamed. For free tickets and the link, go to jfi.org/summer-days/day-4.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.