By Ben Harris (JTA)
March 27, 2012
Rosenfelt sent a scathing email last week to the director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival after learning that she had warned colleagues at other film festivals about "Standing Silent."
The film, which features interviews with several victims of sexual abuse by Baltimore-area Orthodox rabbis, is slated to be screened at several Jewish film festivals across the United States. It was the subject of a lengthy feature article in The Washington Post.
In an email to Jewish film festival directors in September, L.A. festival chief Hilary Helstein wrote that while the film was well made, "Our committee felt with a community that reveres it's [sic] rabbis this was not something they wanted to show."
Rosenfelt called the email the "most unprofessional act" he has seen in his 35-year career.
"The idea that a festival director would go behind the back of a filmmaker and do this gives me great pause to ever recommend your festival to anyone," Rosenfelt wrote to Helstein on March 22. "As you know, I've produced films such as 'Home Alone,' so I know a couple of people in the business. I plan on letting EVERYONE I know to stay away from you and your festival, because you are clearly not someone who supports filmmakers."
Rosenfelt concluded by calling Helstein "a disgrace to Judaism, and not only that, a disgrace to all humanity."
In an interview with JTA, Rosenfelt stood by his comments, saying that Helstein was complicit in the kind of silence surrounding sexual abuse that his film aims to combat. Asked if he really felt Helstein was a disgrace to humanity, Rosenfelt said "Absolutely."
Helstein's email was sent in the context of a discussion among festival officials about possible films to show. She wrote that her festival's team rejected the film because of its subject matter.
"They felt the film was more of a 'witch hunt,' " she wrote.
"We all show different things and each community has a different level of tolerance," Helstein concluded. "I just wanted to put a warning sticker on this one so that you are aware."
Helstein did not respond to requests seeking comment, but John Fishel, the L.A. festival chairman, told JTA that the determination not to screen "Standing Silent" was made by a small group of volunteers on the selection committee. Fishel said the committee did not feel the film was appropriate to screen and worried that it would provoke controversy that would overshadow the film itself.
The exchange highlights the sensitivities and charged emotions surrounding the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community.
"Standing Silent" describes the experiences of a number of survivors of sex abuse in Baltimore's Orthodox community, as well as the efforts of a journalist to bring those cases to light. The journalist, Phil Jacobs, was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. As the editor of The Baltimore Jewish Times, Jacobs spent years documenting sex-abuse allegations and consequently endured opprobrium from segments of the local Orthodox community.
"We've got to get this out in the public and discuss it and keep our children safe," Jacobs, who is now the editor of the Washington Jewish Week, told JTA. "Because it sounds like a big old cliche, but somebody touches you for five seconds, it can impact you forever."
Jewish film festivals have struggled in recent years with how to manage controversial material. In San Francisco in 2009, a documentary about the American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed while trying to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from destroying Palestinian homes, sparked a furious and divisive debate when it was shown at the local Jewish film festival.
According to a source involved with the L.A. festival for several years, Helstein is well intentioned but also hamstrung by a small, conservative donor base that limits the range of material that can be presented.
"[Helstein] was overly sensitive to a particular portion of her donor base and audience and did not consider the value the film would provide to the community at large," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The festival has always had an aversion to controversy and has never been able to provide the kind of leadership in programming the community needs. The tail wags the dog."
Fishel denied the contention.
"I would reject that as an unfair characterization of both Hilary and the festival," he said. "I think that they do a great job. I think that it's getting better and better every year."