Gene Alterman will celebrate his ninth year as executive director of the Orange County International Jewish Film Festival not with a cake and candles, but with high hopes and the ambition to expand the offerings that begin screening Jan. 15 in Irvine.
A 31-year Laguna Beach resident, Alterman took the helm of the 22-year old festival with ties to Irvine’s University Synagogue when the offerings totaled three movies and turnout still left sponsors in the red. But Alterman changed the course of the fest, forging relationships with film distributors, previewing 100 movies before winnowing to a final 10, and cutting a deal with Regal’s Westpark 8 Cinemas.
“I’ve always believed that south Orange County can support a full-fledged international film festival,” said Alterman, whose living room is equipped with a drop-down movie screen and all-format projector. “And, although our films focus to a degree on Jewish themes, these stories are in many ways universal, and will appeal to any and all movie buffs.”
The line-up this season, for instance, includes “Nicky’s Family,” named best documentary at the 2011 Montreal World Film Festival. It tells the story of nearly forgotten Britain Nicholas Winton, who organized the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children. Winton’s exploits would have been forgotten had not his wife discovered a suitcase in the attic filled with documents and transport plans. Winton, 102, has since been knighted by Queen Elizabeth and honored by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Last year, about 2,000 patrons attended the festival’s mostly foreign films. Alterman would like to double attendance and drop ticket prices.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Alterman’s interest in film was piqued in 1950 at Theodore Roosevelt High School, when he was charged with chaperoning Bell & Howell carbon arc film projectors from one classroom to the next for teachers. As soon as he learned to set them up and run them, he was hooked. Off campus, he would chase previews shown by movie studios to elicit feedback from every day Joes. Then, studios asked viewers to fill out evaluation forms outside the theater and used this input to edit feature films.
Open to all who are interested, the film festival offers a morning and evening line-up on different days, each followed by a post-screening talk with screenwriter Michael Berlin.
Sunday subscribers are invited to enjoy a bagel breakfast at 8:30 a.m. before the 9:30 a.m. showing. Sunday’s dates are Jan. 15 and 22, Feb. 5, March 18 and 25; Wednesday’s 7 p.m. screenings are Jan. 18, Feb. 1 and 22, March 14 and 28.
All films will screen at Westpark 8 Cinemas, Main Street and Alton Parkway. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Prices are discounted to subscribers, who may select their own series. For info: visit ocjff.org or call 949-553-3535.