A Covid Life for The Rabbi Goes West
Last March, Covid-19 crushed the independent movie world. Two major film festivals, South by Southwest and Tribeca, despite much-anticipated world premieres of documentaries and features, were canceled on the spot. Woe to the poor filmmakers who had spent years making their movies and then had their big break pulled out from under them.
Some have never recovered the momentum, their precious work still sitting in limbo a year later. How depressing and deflating for them, to never appear with their films before a live crowd at an exciting, influential film festival. To never experience the limelight.
March 2020 was a downer for me also as an independent filmmaker. The feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, which I co-directed with my wife, Amy Geller, was set for a spectacular month. We had chosen to self-distribute instead of going with a booking agent or a bona fide distributor, a chancy thing to do. But we were being rewarded: We had nine play dates for the month at Jewish film festivals everywhere, including one in Tel Aviv. Well, the punch line is obvious: Seven of our showings were aborted. In a matter of days, live exhibition of films was wiped out across the world.
Amy and I definitely were bruised, licking our wounds. But how much luckier we were than our compatriots who couldn’t show their movies at all. What a difference in fortune a few months can make. By March 2020, we already had a lengthy track record with The Rabbi Goes West, which had its world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in summer 2019, and it had been was the closing night of the fall 2019 Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Before the pandemic, we had flown West for screenings in Berkeley and the legendary Castro Theater in downtown San Francisco. We’d traveled to Georgia for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, and to Palm Beach, Florida, and we ended in Canada at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival on the cusp of the plague: a final live screening on March 5, 2020.
For a few months at least, we had fulfilled our wants as independent filmmakers with live screenings and Q&A’s with our audiences. Such delight! And there was the extra charge of traveling with our film to interesting places. A bonus for me was to show The Rabbi Goes West at the Sidewalk Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, a place I’d never been.
When I wasn’t enjoying the Fest, I sampled the local “soul food,” and checked out used book stores, the baseball-themed Negro Southern League Museum, and the Black churches so famous from the Civil Rights era. My time in Birmingham demonstrated everything glorious in being an independent filmmaker. Pre-Covid.
What has happened for our film since the pandemic? In the last eleven months? Our fate has been so much better than we would have expected.
First, the Jewish film festivals that had shut down in March 2020 have come back one by one in a smaller way, and always virtually. They have put The Rabbi Goes West back on their calendars, and paid us rental fees to show our film online. Amy and I continue to travel, but, alas, only in cyberspace. We are still chatting with people who have just seen our film, but only on Zoom calls organized by the fests.
We have also developed new audiences online: synagogues, providing Jewish-themed entertainment to their at-home congregations. The Rabbi Goes West is a documentary about a Hasidic rabbi, Chaim Bruk, who moved to Bozeman, Montana, to bring his kind of Judaism to the American West. Rabbi Chaim is a Chabad rabbi, and 21 Chabad shuls have shown our film virtually.
When they do a Q&A, they usually invite Rabbi Bruk as their guest, being far less interested in what the two secular filmmakers have to say about Hasidism. That’s OK, as in recent days we’ve been getting interest from non-Hasidic synagogues to screen our film, educating their congregants about a different kind of Judaism.
Finally, one extraordinary positive thing that has happened with our film that could ONLY occur with Covid. Regular movie theaters are becoming open to booking us as part of their virtual programming. In normal times, they would never ever show our little documentary because we have no distributor, zero advertising budget, and we would be taking up one of their valuable theaters. But with everything virtual, what do they have to lose by including The Rabbi Goes West as one of the many films on their schedule?
So now I can brag. Our documentary just finished a seven-week run at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago and a three-week run at the Laemmle Virtual Theaters in Los Angeles. And I never thought I’d say this: “We played in Peoria!” That’s right, three weeks at Peoria’s Landmark Theatre in Central Illinois. I wish I could have been there live!
Copyright © 2021 Gerald Perry
Gerald Peary was a movie critic for the late Boston Phoenix and is the filmmaker of three documentary features. He acted in the 2013 cult independent film, Computer Chess.