How a run-in with Guillermo del Toro led to NYC’s first Mexican Jewish Film Festival

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JTA — When Deborah Koenigsberger Gutierrez attended a small cocktail reception with acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro last December, she didn’t expect to leave with an idea for a synagogue fundraiser.

But in a conversation with del Toro and a few other guests at the event, which was in honor of the premiere of his latest feature, “Pinocchio,” the famed filmmaker made a statement that stuck with her.

“He said something that really affected me,” recalled Koenigsberger Gutierrez, president of the Tribeca Synagogue. “He said, ‘Every Mexican outside of Mexico is an ambassador of Mexican culture.'”

Koenigsberger Gutierrez, who was born in Mexico City, was looking for creative ways to attract young families to his community, which left the traditional silent auction and big dinner. She landed on a program that would draw audiences and honor del Toro’s craft, and began organizing the synagogue’s first-ever Mexican Jewish Film Festival, which begins Sunday, April 2.

“I basically said to myself, ‘How can I bring in a big event that draws people in and also celebrates Mexican Jewry?'” Koenigsberger Gutierrez said. “And everyone loves going to the movies.”

The festival will feature 10 films with English subtitles over a three-day period, all directed, produced, written or acted by Mexican Jews. The Jews featured in the festival come from a variety of Jewish backgrounds, including Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Syrian, and the films cover a variety of genres, including horror, comedy and drama.

Guillermo del Toro, right, with Tom Cruise at the 95th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on February 13, 2023, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

In addition to screening films, the festival will feature questions and answers with two directors: Guita Schyfter, who directed “Like a Bride”, a coming-of-age story about two young women in 1960s Mexico City; and Isaac Ezban, who directed two horror films, “Evil Eye” and “The Similars.” There will be a performance from Nashir! chorus, pop-up artisan shops in the social hall, coffee from the Chiapas region of Mexico and cocktails and kosher Mexican food from Carlos & Gabby’s restaurant.

Screenings of the film will end on April 4, and the festival will host a final day of events on April 5, the eve of Passover, including a “bread party” where attendees can indulge in forbidden porridge products traditional them on the holiday. Vendors will sell Mexican folk cuisine and kosher Mexican cookies.

The Tribeca Synagogue, known as the Synagogue for the Arts until a decade ago, frequently rents out its sanctuary space, and hosted the 2022 NYC Bike Film Festival in November. He can put a huge screen in front of the sanctuary, turning it into a makeshift theatre. Organizing the Mexican Jewish Film Festival, Koenigsberger Gutierrez said, was all about selecting the films and getting the rights to screen them (and in one case, subtitling one of the films, the 2008 drama “3 :19,” in English for the first time ever.)

Other films screened at the festival include the 1955 comedy “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz,” about a wanted serial killer who keeps plotting murders but is unable to complete any of them; “One for the Road,” a 2014 film about three octogenarian friends who go on a road trip together; and the 2007 comedy “My Mexican Shivah,” about a family dealing with their secrets being revealed while mourning their patron.

Deborah Koenigsberger Gutierrez in an interview 2022. (YouTube screenshot/ used according to clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Beyond his own synagogue community, which has less than 100 active members, Koenigsberger Gutierrez expects a diverse crowd for the festival. Jorge Islas Lopez, consul general of Mexico in New York, will address and is inviting Mexicans in New York to attend. The Sephardi Federation of America and the Syrian Jewish group Kanisse are also partnering with the festival.

Koenigsberger Gutierrez hopes the films will enable viewers to see more than popular US conceptions of Mexico on screen, which she says focus too much on violence fueled by drug cartels.

“We are not one genre,” Koenigsberger Gutierrez said. “We’re not just El Chapo and all these you know, drug dealers, and the things you see [in] Hollywood enough. We are much more than that. The film festival is to celebrate Mexican Jews and their work.”

She added, “People tend to think that Jews look a certain way. And I can say that people, too, think that Mexico looks a certain way.”

When Koenigsberger Gutierrez came to the United States for a master’s degree eight years ago, she was surprised to find people doubting her nationality.

“In Mexico, no one ever questioned that I was Mexican,” she said. “There was no question. But when I got to America, people would be like, ‘You’re not really Mexican because you’re Jewish.’ And that was kind of like, really something that I have never, deal with. I was like, ‘What do you mean? I’m 100% Mexican, I’m 100% Jewish.’ I’m Mexican and I’m Jewish.”

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