ARTICLEStill Pushing Boundaries at Citizen Film: Seven Years Later

In 2014, Sam Ball and his colleagues at Citizen Film received a Covenant Foundation Signature grant to implement new approaches to digital storytelling that would engage Jewish Studies scholars and the communities they serve. New Media in Jewish Studies, as the project was called, was intended to “creatively explore intersections of Jewish and American modernity.”

To begin, Citizen Film recruited a cohort of six Jewish Studies professors — and then expanded to 12 scholars and their graduate students — to create a media collective engaging Jewish Studies programs and audiences in innovative ways.

Citizen Film's documentary storytelling had already been pushing the boundaries of Jewish education. For instance, Ball's short films and media installations exploring Jewish culture had already appeared in exhibitions at the Jewish Museum in New York, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and in many other cultural centers. But engaging with universities opened new doors for Citizen Film and Jewish Studies scholars.


Deborah Dash Moore, the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan, who collaborated with Citizen Film on the project, notes that digital storytelling in the classroom is "a transformative experience for these students." Students’ knowledge of newer media-making techniques and platforms means that teaching and learning is intergenerational in both directions, a traditional Jewish idea.

"As a professor, whenever one can learn from one’s students, that's a very useful thing,” says Dr. Moore.

“This grant created many opportunities for uncommon connections," Ball said. For instance, "What We Carry with Us," Citizen Film’s project with University of California, Berkeley, Jewish Studies scholar Francesco Spagnolo, allowed students to contribute to a 2019 multimedia installation at the Magnes gallery in downtown Berkeley, exploring objects curated by Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.

This work has travelled extensively. On New York’s Times Square, after viewing outdoor video art exploring refugees’ “memory objects” on large outdoor billboards, passersby were invited into a modified shipping container where immersive short films and video chats with professor Spagnolo engaged them in reflection and chavruta, or one-on-one conversation.

During Passover of 2021 (with the further collaboration of the JCC of San Francisco and the National Endowment for the Arts), Ball and Spagnolo co-presented the exhibition as an online program of short films connecting Exodus with current displacement around the world. That reboot reached 35,000 unique viewers and catalyzed reflection about the intersection of Jewish education and social justice work.

Now, for Pride Month and World Refugee Day, Citizen Film and the Magnes are preparing to relaunch the project with support from the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival to focus Jewish and non-Jewish audiences on the experience of LGBTQ+ refugees.

"The film festival is typical of the partners we’ve onboarded thanks to our original Covenant grant,” said Ball. “We are interested in reaching out beyond Jewish venues, to fulfill Jewish Studies’ traditional mission as a bridge between Jewish scholarship and community, and between Jewish communities and allies. The festival also expands the audience for Jewish themed social justice work.”

Ball added that “Covenant’s ongoing thought partnership supports entrepreneurial bridge building that helps us engage many thousands of audience members in reflection and dialogue on an ongoing basis.”

By Dan Schifrin, for The Covenant Foundation

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