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Charlotte Jewish Film Festival goes beyond religion 

Group exercise

Hot soups. Pastrami sandwiches. Sauerkraut. Tender corned beef. These are just a few things that make a great Jewish deli.

Filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou explores these tastes and more in his documentary Deli Man, which looks at the joys and struggles of keeping the booming deli scene of the '30s and '40s alive. It's just one of 14 films being shown at the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, which kicks off on Feb. 11.

"Everybody loves food," says festival co-director Benjamin Schwartz. "The Deli Man is a documentary about how the Jewish deli became so popular and so prevalent for so many years, but now the real Jewish deli is dying out because of various reasons. It's done in a really light and fun way."

But if "light and fun" documentaries aren't your thing — or if you're not Jewish — don't fret. With 11 years of independent film expertise behind them, Schwartz and Rick Willenzik will have something for everyone.

"A romantic comedy is a romantic comedy, whether it has Jewish characters in it or not," Willenzik says. "A drama is a drama. It appeals to Jewish people but also to independent film lovers in general."

This year's lineup includes a few military flicks that just might give American Sniper a run for its money, including Above and Beyond, an ode to the Israeli Air Force produced by Nancy Spielberg (Steven's sister).

Another film that touches on a timely, controversial topic (marriage) is Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. While gay couples in the U.S. fight for their right to legally wed, the Israeli protagonist in this drama seeks a divorce from her stubborn husband in a religious court.

And we can't forget to mention the showing of What He Did For Love, a tribute to the late master composer Marvin Hamlisch. It's the first movie in the series, and Terre Hamlisch, Marvin's wife, is scheduled to attend.

In reflecting on the countless volunteer hours and lengthy film selection process leading up to show time, Schwartz and Willenzik look back at where it all started.

"Ten years ago, we showed two films to 140 people, and through growth and being smart about how we program, last year we ended up having 18 films, 21 events and sold over 3,800 tickets," Schwartz says.

This growth, along with encouragement from the community (attendees loved the dessert reception, so it's back), has made CJFF a prominent player in the arts scene in Charlotte.

"It's great bringing the community together to share an experience, not just watching a film, but bringing in guest directors and guest producers and having panel discussions," Willenzik says. "It adds more of a communal experience to it than just sitting there and watching a film in your living room or on your computer."

This annual gathering hasn't gone unnoticed, either.

"One of the things I took the most pride and satisfaction in is one of our grant providers said that he uses CJFF as an example of arts organizations that do it right, which I think is a phenomenal pat on the back and testament of the work and sacrifice our volunteers have put in these last 11 years," Schwartz says.

According to a yearly survey done by CJFF, 98 percent of festivalgoers said they would return next year, a remarkable figure for any business.

This overwhelmingly positive audience reaction may be because "the festival offers a nonthreatening access point for the community to see movies for whatever reason, whether social or entertainment or educational," Schwartz says.

Schwartz says his favorite part of the film festival experience is "hearing the laughs in all the right places" when he's sitting in a theater. "Film, or the arts, is all about providing this avenue for people of any background to get together to enjoy a great cultural experience."

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