Hamilton, Ont.’s Jewish Film Festival was postponed over ‘security concerns’ according to the theatre—but there’s more to the story

Social media statement issued by the Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton, Ont., on March 19, 2024.

UPDATE (3/25/24): The city-owned Ancaster Arts Memorial Centre will now host the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival.

Playhouse Cinema decided against hosting the 2024 Hamilton Jewish Film Festival as scheduled due to “security and safety related phone calls, emails and social media messages,” according to its statement issued on March 19.

“Our decision to postpone this venue rental was reached amid security and safety concerns at this particularly sensitive time.”

But according to the Jewish Federation located in Ontario’s fourth-largest city, there were no security reasons to withdraw from hosting the festival, which had booked the Playhouse screen from April 7-9.

“There were no direct threats and I understand also the theatre is in contact with the police. I would be absolutely shocked to hear if the police told them to cancel the event over security,” said Jazmin Rymberg, the Federation’s communications coordinator. “I think it was blatant antisemitism. And they succumbed to the antisemites that wrote to them.”

The film festival was originally booked for the Westdale Theatre—where it was planned for 2024 until the Hamilton Jewish Federation severed those ties in December after the Westdale screened the film Israelism, a controversial movie that is critical of American Jewish education on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“We asked them to postpone it as we thought, just right now is not the appropriate time to do that it would just inflame an already difficult situation for the Jewish community,” said Rymberg.

The Westdale had originally cancelled the screening, and then reversed the decision—with apologies from its board of directors.

Board chair Fred Fuchs was instrumental in both the restoration of the 1935-era theatre and its relationship with the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival, which spawned from an annual event at Beth Jacob Synagogue.

“It almost doesn’t matter what the film was about,” Fuchs told CBC News upon the initial cancellation of Israelism. “The problem is so complex, if they show one film and one point of view, it’s not appropriate.” 

Fuchs initially said the Westdale also wouldn’t accommodate a pro-Israel movie at that point in time. Days later, the board of directors publicly clarified that screening controversial films was “core” to its mandate.

“Basically overnight, they decided they were going to go forward with this screening anyway. And then we decided to pull out our programming from there,” Rymberg said.

Playhouse Cinema was then chosen as the new venue for the festival which had initially planned to begin at the Westdale in 2020, although in-person screenings weren’t feasible until two years later.

After feeling blindsided by the airing of Israelism at the Westdale, the Federation thought that being transparent with the Playhouse would help avoid similar conflicts, according to Rymberg.

“We were very transparent with the theatre owners, we told them, ‘This is our event. You know, these are the films we’re going to be showing.’ They were all very aware of this, you know, but then they received a few letters, and they decided to listen to those letters instead of us.”

The festival is screening five films, including one which examines the work of a medical team in Ukraine and another set in a hair salon in a Christian-Arab community in Haifa. A commemorative screening of a film by Yahav Winner, who was killed in the Oct. 7 attack on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, was also planned. The full program can be found on the festival’s website.

The newly renovated Jewish Federation building will host the film festival in spring. “The great news is that we do have our own space now. The bad news is, is that we’re kind of isolated or feeling marginalized,” said Rymberg.

“We will be moving forward with the film festival. We are going to run it in our venue and it’s going to happen, it’s going to be better than ever.”