Howard Elias, founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival
There aren’t a lot of Jews in Hong Kong, but that hasn’t stopped the city from becoming the centre of Jewish life in Asia, with one of the continent’s oldest synagogues, an active community centre and the only Jewish film festival on this side of the world.
Hong Kong’s first Jews arrived with the British in 1842 — many had been trading in nearby Canton, now known as Guangzhou — and by the turn of the twentieth century, some of the territory’s most prominent families were Jewish, including the Kadoories and Sassoons, whose names have been enshrined in streets, hills and institutions across the city. (Andy Lau, arguably Hong Kong’s biggest pop star, lives in a mansion on Kadoorie Avenue.) One of Hong Kong’s early governors, Sir Matthew Nathan, was Jewish, and though he wasn’t local — Hong Kong was just one of his many stops in the imperial service — he did provide the community with a certain amount of official attention.
Despite a small influx of Jews from Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin after the Japanese invasion of China, Hong Kong’s Jewish community remained tiny until quite recently; it numbered 200 in 1968 and 2,500 in 1998. Recently, though, more and more Jewish expatriates have been moving to Hong Kong, and the community numbers somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 — about the same size as the Jewish communities in Calgary, Frankfurt and pre-Katrina New Orleans.
Earlier this week, I interviewed Howard Elias, the Toronto-born founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, for CNNGo. Below is a slightly expanded transcript of our conversation.
How did the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival get started?
The film festival got started because my friend Hannelore and I — she’s my number one volunteer now; I’m the Big Cheese and she’s the Second Banana — were at another film festival about 11 years ago and I said to her, “Let’s start a film festival. How hard can it be? Can’t be any harder than planning a party.” That’s what I said. Little did I know, it was much harder than planning a party.
Imagine that. What happened from there?
I happened to get home early one day from work and I was watching “Oprah” and one of the segments was about this Jewish man who had hid the fact that he was Jewish until he was on his deathbed. He was there dying and he said to his granddaughter, “Oh, by the way, honey, I’m Jewish.” She was a filmmaker named Lisa Lewenz and she ended up making a documentary about the whole thing.
The best part is that after he died, she was cleaning up his home, and in the attic there were old 8mm color films that her grandmother shot in Berlin in 1933. What she found out was that her family was wealthy in Berlin, right before the war. She had heard stories from her father that Albert Einstein was his math tutor, and there was Albert Einstein in the movie. She spliced her grandmother’s film into her own film. Because her grandmother’s film was silent, she hired a lip-reader to find out what was being said, and she called her film “A Letter Without Words.”
When I saw this I thought, I not only have to get this film, I have to get Lisa Lewenz. So I wrote her and asked not only if I could screen her film, but if she would come. And she did! So that was the first edition of the festival.
Sounds like it was a pretty illustrious opening.
It was small. We did it in the Jewish Community Centre, on Robinson Road, and the average attendance was 29 people. If something could go wrong, it did go wrong — we had projection breakdowns, air conditioning problems, but people held out. The funny thing was that the very last movie actually started on time, but there was nobody in the audience because everybody assumed we would be late. I had to stop the film to wait for people to come.
We’ve since improved. Last year we had an attendance of 1,440. The only reason it wasn’t sold out is because people don’t like sitting in the front row of the cinema. This year we’ve moved to a bigger cinema, the AMC Pacific Place, so we have 50 percent more seats than last year.
What else is going on this year?
The theme is love. One of the things I’ve wanted to achieve is to push our community to look at subjects that may not be comfortable. Every year I try to go a little bit further. So this year, we have quite a few films with gay themes. I think we’re ready to talk about it, but some people in the community have already said to me they aren’t happy.
I also have another film, “Let There Be Light,” about a Hasidic family that was torn apart because five out of the ten kids left the religion. It happens with a lot of families and we shouldn’t be burying our heads in the sand about it. What ties all of these stories together is love and how you can overcome these difficulties, and that makes a nice palatable theme for everyone.
What role does the festival play in Hong Kong’s Jewish community?
The Jewish community here is very small. People are from everywhere, even countries where I didn’t know there were Jews, like Zaire. We don’t have the amenities that we would have in Toronto or New York but we’re very lucky with what we do have. We have a beautiful synagogue that’s over 100 years old, we have kosher restaurants, a kosher supermarket, a Hebrew day school. You don’t really feel like you’re part of a minority. There’s no antisemitism here at all. You can walk down the street wearing a kippa and no one will give you a sideways look.
There aren’t many things in our community that are non-partisan. This is one of them. Even if someone is not active in the Jewish community, they come to the festival, which is great. There’s no religion to it, except the fact that we’re kosher. It’s just a big party. We’re the only Jewish film festival in Asia — there’s nothing else between Jerusalem and Sydney. We’ve had people come from Shanghai and Beijing, and the Israeli ambassador to Myanmar came a couple years ago.
The first year, I think all but five of our audience was Jewish. Now about a third of the audience is local Chinese. They absolutely love it and I’ll tell you why. We’re a very personal film festival. I stand up in front of every show and tell people about the film, give a bit of insight into why we chose it, and we’ll have guests come to meet the audience. I tell all the volunteers to thank the audience for coming.
I’ve been to film festivals here where nobody from the film festival even shows up. That’s not a film festival, that’s just a film!
This has a reputation for being a fun festival. Two years ago, you screened “Chez Schwartz,” a documentary about a famous deli in Montreal. I heard you flew in a bunch of smoked meat sandwiches.
Actually, we didn’t fly them in, because Schwartz’s isn’t kosher. What we did is we asked someone to find the recipe and make the smoked meat themselves. Then we had to find Dr. Brown’s soda to go with it, which was actually easy to find, because there’s this guy from Montreal in the restaurant business here and he brought some in.
That same year we had the Hong Kong premiere of “Borat.” You know that little green thong he wears in the movie? We handed them out to all the men in the audience.
We do a lot to make it an event. It’s about the buzz.