Jewish film fest a winter treat for Alaska’s frozen Chosen

Jewish film fest a winter treat for Alaska’s frozen Chosen

When there are four hours of daylight and temperatures are subzero, non-Jews are also happy to see Semitic cinema in Fairbanks

Home to a theater used for festival screenings, the Blue Loon is located on the only road between Fairbanks and Alaska's largest city -- a mere 360 miles to the south. (Matthew Shroder)
Home to a theater used for festival screenings, the Blue Loon is located on the only road between Fairbanks and Alaska's largest city -- a mere 360 miles to the south. (Matthew Shroder)

So you live in the subarctic, it’s pitch dark, and the temperature is 40 degrees below zero. The world is covered with thick, hard snow. But you really want to get out of the house. What do you do?

See a Jewish movie, of course.

The Northernmost Jewish Film Festival opens Saturday for its 15th run in Fairbanks, Alaska. Screening until March 3, the festival lineup features seven movies, ranging from  “Hava Nagila,” a documentary, to “Footnote,” last year’s Oscar-nominated Israeli film about feuding Talmudic scholars.

Venues include a first-class coffee house, a municipal auditorium and an establishment far more interesting than the bar in “Northern Exposure.” The festival unreels every year at a time when even Alaskans start getting tired of winter in the Last Frontier.

The concept of a Jewish film festival in interior Alaska may seem counterintuitive, but seemed like a good idea to the three people who started it: Jerry Lipka, a professor of education at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks; his wife, Janet Schichnes, an academic advisor at UAF; and university film curator Len Kamerling.

“Jerry came to me and says, ‘I have this idea of having a Jewish film festival here,’” Kamerling recalls. “I said, ‘That’s crazy enough.’

“It was an overwhelming success.”

The festival’s mission, Kamerling says, wasn’t to provide entertainment for just Fairbanks’ tiny Jewish population, estimated to be no more than a few hundred in a city of 32,200. The organizers wanted to reach a broader audience, a prospect boosted by the high percentage of mixed marriages in the area.

“We have films from all over the world,” says festival organizer Elyse Guttenberg. (Courtesy)
“We have films from all over the world,” says festival organizer Elyse Guttenberg. (Courtesy)

The city, where the average high in February is 8 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 13.3 degrees Celsius), essentially stands as the northern terminus of civilization in the Western Hemisphere. North of Fairbanks is nothing but tundra, the Brooks mountain range and, 500 miles away, the Arctic Ocean. It is 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle. At the winter solstice, the city gets 3 hours, 41 minutes and 29 seconds of sunlight.

The city has the most extreme temperatures of any on the planet, ranging in an average year between a high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) in the summer to 60 below zero Fahrenheit (negative 51 degrees Celsius) in the winter. Entertainment choices are limited.

No one is sure how many Jews live in Fairbanks. Thad Keener, a former president of the city’s only synagogue, Or HaTzafon (Light of the North), says it’s between 250 and 300.

The festival was initially supported by and continues to receive funding from the synagogue, a lay-run Reform congregation with members from about 50 households. The community boasts the northernmost synagogue building in the world, at latitude 65.8 north.

Venues vary. This year, “Paris-Manhattan,” a French comedy about a pharmacist obsessed with Woody Allen, will be shown at the community-owned Pioneer Park in midtown. “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” a documentary about the 1950s television show, will screen in an auditorium at UAF, while “Making Trouble,” an American film about Jewish women comedians, will be shown at the student center.

A particularly popular venue is the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, a cafe near the campus owned by Michael Gesser, whose sister runs a branch in the slightly warmer climate of North Miami. During screenings, Gesser hangs a blackout curtain so that festival audiences don’t disturb other customers.

In some years, the festival flies in guest speakers  using donated frequent-flier miles

The oddest venue — and in Alaska, that’s a relative term — is the Blue Loon, a combination restaurant, bar, movie theater and rock locale. Known to locals as the Loon, the space is 20 minutes from town on the George Parks Highway, the only direct road between Fairbanks and Alaska’s population center in Anchorage, 360 miles to the south.

(For those interested in culture, the Loon is actually closer to Ester, a former mining town idiosyncratic even by Alaska standards, which consists of small cabins — some handcrafted — a public library the size of a walk-in closet and the legendary Golden Eagle Saloon, where customers cook their own meals on a hotplate. Many residents are writers, artists, craftspeople and university staff, some of whom come to see the Jewish movies.)

In some years, the festival flies in guest speakers associated with the films — usually documentarians rather than movie stars — using donated frequent-flier miles on Alaska Airlines.

Travel options are somewhat limited: In the winter, there are only two flights a day into Fairbanks, both from Anchorage. Fortunately, the airport — as well as schools and most other public facilities — rarely close because of the weather, which is true of the film festival, too. (Even the synagogue’s Hebrew school stays open until the mercury hits 30 below).

Guest housing is often provided by Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, a Jewish-owned hotel, or in a private home.

If Fairbanks’ people and places sound eccentric, the movies are not. Often, they’re part of the international festival circuit, and organizers are proud of their choices.

“We have films from all over the world,” says organizer Elyse Guttenberg.

The foreign films are usually subtitled, which does reduce the audience somewhat.

By now, the festival is sufficiently well-known that organizers are plugged into the larger film festival community, with contacts with organizers around the world. Some of films shown at the Northernmost Jewish Film Festival have already popped up at Sundance and Cannes, Guttenberg notes.

No one is sure how many Jews live in Fairbanks

“To the extent that’s possible, we purchase the films,” Guttenberg says, “because doing so is cheaper than buying a license to show them commercially.”

When the screenings are done, many films are donated to the university library, which by now has several dozen, according to Kamerling.

Kamerling points out that the festival is curated, not a contest. There are old films and new ones, often thematically linked.

Tickets cost a “suggested” $10 at the door, and the festival is mostly self-supporting. Audiences typically top out at 50.

Guttenberg suspects most viewers are affiliated with the university, and are mostly not Jewish.

Organizers keep the university informed about what they are showing, and can get creative about luring an audience. Occasionally, seeing a festival film will be a class assignment; the festival once promoted a screening and panel discussion with the help of the philosophy department.

The festival’s current organizers say 15 years’ service has been enough, and are turning operations back over to the synagogue. Keener says he’ll be one of those involved.

In Fairbanks in particular, there are reasons to hope it‘ll keep going. If nothing else, a few days of Jewish movies give locals something to do — as long as they’re willing to brave the cold and dark.

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