When one thinks about a Jewish film festival, one tends to think of cities such as San Francisco, New York or Toronto. But Ajijic, Mexico?
Putting on an annual Jewish film festival in this small village – situated about a half-hour drive from Guadalajara’s international airport – may seem like an anomaly, but 10 years ago, a group of Jewish film buffs thought differently. They formed a committee and successfully launched the area’s first Jewish film festival.
The eight-week Ajijic Jewish Film Festival continues to attract attendees who show up every week, giving validation to this wintertime, Sunday afternoon event.
Torontonian Blema Steinman was one of the original committee members. As a film aficionado and longtime fan of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, she and her husband, Bill Lifchus, are two of Ajijic’s many Canadian snowbirds who flock to the area’s warmer climate to escape sub-zero temperatures.
“Having attended many films at Toronto’s Jewish film festival over the years, I am accustomed to this form of entertainment. Therefore, when Bill and I learned that a committee was being formed in Ajijic to start a Jewish film festival, we jumped right in,” says Steinman.
According to Michael Zimmerman, this year’s festival director, residents and snowbirds alike look forward to this annual event.
“We have a reputation for showing great films,” says Zimmerman. “People mark their calendars as soon as the flyers are out – and a good percentage of them aren’t even Jewish.”
Zimmerman has been an Ajijic resident since 2016, having attended San Francisco’s popular Jewish film festival for 35 years, while living in the Bay Area.
“Our intention is to create a festival that’s entertaining, by including a mix of films – from traditional to more recent releases, and from comedies to historical films.”
During the festival’s first year, it showed a series of films at Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation – the area’s only synagogue.
“The year following that first showing,” says Steinman, “we rented space at one of Ajijic’s movie theatres for a four-week run. With their comfortable seats and high-quality projectors, we’ve been able to hold the festival there ever since.”
Besides serving as pure entertainment, the Ajijic Jewish Film Festival also serves as a fundraiser. Forty per cent of the money raised from ticket and ad sales benefit local charities; the other 60 per cent goes toward the cost of producing the festival.
Steinman discovered Ajijic while taking a Spanish course in Toronto. She got to chatting with a fellow student who told her that he was planning to retire to a small Mexican town that she’d never heard of.
“Being that I love languages and enjoy learning about different cultures, I was intrigued enough to do some research on Ajijic, located on the shores of Lake Chapala – Mexico’s largest natural lake,” she says.
“I turned to my husband and suggested that, instead of visiting Florida or taking a cruise for our usual winter getaway, we visit Ajijic.”
When they arrived in 2005, they were surprised to see an active Jewish community in the little Mexican village. Since the area didn’t yet have a synagogue, Jews would come together in a church called the Little Chapel.
“One day, we were invited to a talk at the Little Chapel, given by a Jewish man,” says Steinman. “His talk was about the Jews of Spain. We were warmly welcomed, which left us with a positive impression of the area.”
Steinman later befriended Ann, a woman who lives in Ajijic, and the two began emailing back and forth once Steinman returned to Toronto.
“Ann invited Bill and me to stay at her home while she was traveling and, in
exchange, we would care for her two dogs,” says Steinman.
They took her up on her offer and loved the experience, prompting them to do the same thing the following year. The couple continued wintering in Ajijic and purchased a home there in 2007.
Born in Lisbon, Steinman lived in Montreal most of her life, where she worked as a French teacher. She moved to Toronto in 1990 to join her family and continued to teach French.
“I have taught French all my life,” she says with a smile. “I enjoy teaching and continue to substitute teach in Toronto every spring and fall.”
Lifchus owns a pharmacy and works there as a pharmacist. His responsibilities require him to depart Ajijic a bit earlier than Steinman, who stays for four and a half months.
Although Steinman is no longer part of the Jewish Film Festival committee, she’s still a regular attendee of the festival. She is also a member of a foreign film group that meets every Thursday afternoon in Ajijic.
Once back in Toronto, and in order to avoid having to wait in long lines, Steinman will be purchasing tickets in advance for the ever popular Toronto Jewish Film Festival – something she has volunteered for and attends every year with her husband.
“The Toronto Jewish Film Festival shows 100 films in many different venues, which (is) quite a contrast from the Ajijic Jewish Film Festival’s eight films in one theatre, but I love them equally,” she says. “I’m grateful that Ajijic doesn’t have the long lines that Toronto has – at least not yet.”
The tenth annual Ajijic Jewish Film Festival runs until Feb. 24.