Montgomery County native Jason Hutt didn’t think after he graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac and went to Harvard to study economics that he’d turn into a filmmaker.
But a filmmaker he became, and his documentary, “Sukkah City,” is one of 64 films that will be screened during the annual Washington Jewish Film Festival running from Thursday to March 9 at venues in Rockville, Silver Spring and Washington, D.C.
“The 24th annual event is expected to draw 10,000 people from Washington and surrounding counties,” said festival director Ilya Tovbis, who is in his second year of running the event.
“One-quarter to one-third of our audience comes from outside [the District],” Tovbis said.
There are 13 screenings at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and 10 screenings at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.
This year’s festival will also offer more chances for people to talk to one another about the films at social events and panel discussions, Tovbis said.
“We don’t want it to be just watching a film and going home,” he said. “There are Q&A’s and programmed discussions.”
Details about venues, dates, times and director appearances are available on the festival’s website at wjff.org.
One of the main draws is likely to be the 2013 film “Fading Gigolo,” starring Woody Allen and John Turturro. Turturro also directed and wrote the movie. It is screening March 8 at the AFI Silver Theatre, and Turturro will be present for a Q&A after the show.
“It’s a treatment of the Orthodox community in Brooklyn, it’s funny,” said Tovbis.
The movie is about Fioravante (Turturro), who becomes a professional Don Juan to help his friend Murray (Allen), who owns a failing bookstore.
Allen is his “manager,” and along the way, Turturro becomes romantically involved for real with an orthodox Jewish widow (Vanessa Paradis). Also in the cast are Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara.
Hutt’s documentary is called “Sukkah City,” and it’s about an international competition to design and build sukkahs, temporary shelters intended to remind Jews of their homelessness during the exodus from Egypt.
During the seven-day Sukkot holiday, families eat their meals in them and occasionally sleep in them.
The film is screening March 6, at the JCC in Rockville and March 9 at the JCC in Washington, D.C. Hutt will be available after the screenings and also will be at the Library of Congress for a discussion on March 7.
A resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., for 12 years, Hutt is particularly interested in making films about aspects of Jewish culture. His most recent film, “Orthodox Stance,” is about an immigrant Russian boxer balancing his career and his Orthodox faith.
Hutt said he happened to be reading the Brooklyn Arts Council newsletter in 2010 when he spotted a request for proposal for architectural designers to build sukkahs for an exhibition in Union Square.
The competition was co-created by author Joshua Foer, a member of the Washington-based Foer family, who gave Hutt the go-ahead to film the competition from start to finish, including the judging by well-known architects and critics.
Hutt, who is Jewish, said he’s never built a sukkah himself, but that he was interested in the creative process of re-imagining the practice, which dates back thousands of years.
“It was about recovering an old tradition and seeing how it would resonate in contemporary culture,” Hutt said.
“You’re meant to experience what it was like in the wilderness and to think about the fragility of life and that ultimately we are vulnerable, so you leave your home,” he said.
But today Jews can buy pre-packaged, tent-like sukkahs that all look the same.
“It’s difficult to build one,” said Hutt. “I can understand how people pull it out of the garage every year.”
More than 600 people submitted their ideas to the competition, he said.
“They were all wildly different, with different materials and shapes,” Hutt said. “One was made out of vinyl and another out of a single piece of wire. One was a gigantic log on top four pieces of glass.”
A panel of judges picked a dozen winners, which were displayed in Union Square Park in New York for two days in September 2010. The “people’s choice” award went to “Fractured Bubble,” a globe-shaped structure designed by Babak Bryan and Henry Grosman, that remained on view during the Sukkot holiday.
Hutt said “Sukkah City” is making the festival circuit and that he is planning to release a DVD, probably in September.
Wide range of movies
This year’s films, which range from serious documentaries to comedies and films for younger people, come from 18 countries. The Washington premiere of the award-winning movie, “Bethlehem,” screens Saturday at AFI Silver. It is about an Israeli Secret Service officer and his teenage Palestinian informant. The movie won six Ophir awards, the equivalent of the Academy Awards in Israel.
The festival will also feature several films from Poland, including “Aftermath,” a fictional story inspired by the murders of more than 300 Jews at Jedwabne in 1941 that involved a barn fire set by Poles.
“There were serious waves of protest in Poland — mobs forced the theaters to close,” said Tovbis, about some Poles objecting to the movie.
“Poland is going through a resurgence of interest in Jewish music and culture,” nearly all of which was wiped out during the Holocaust, he said.
Screening on March 6 at AFI Silver is the documentary “Regina,” featuring the voice of British actress Rachel Weisz as Regina Jones, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish peddler who was ordained in Berlin in 1935 and died in Auschwitz in 1944.
Director and producer Julie Cohen, who grew up in the Washington area, will be showing her documentary, “The Sturgeon Queens,” about a Lower East Side lox and herring establishment called Russ and Daughters run by four generations of a Russian immigrant family.
“It’s fun and incisive and well -researched,” Tovbis said.
Also screening are the first three episodes of a popular Israeli TV show called “Shtisel,” which is about a Haredi widower and his son living in Jerusalem.
“It’s a peek behind the current of an ultra-Orthodox community in Jersusalem,” Tovbis said.
Also featured will be the claymation, stop-motion film “Master of a Good Name,” about Baal Shem Tov, the rabbi living in the Ukraine in the 1700s who is believed to have founded Hasidic Judaism.
Also scheduled are panel discussions about Arab speakers in Jewish schools and other aspects of living together in Israel, where Arabs make up 20 percent of the population.
There’s a pub crawl on U Street in Washington featuring three short films per pub, and new this year are gatherings during the festival at Black Whiskey in Washington, where visitors can talk informally with filmmakers.
“If you want to remain relevant on the cultural scene ... you have to evolve and grow, and attract younger and different audiences,” Tovbis said.