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A Screening Room of His Own

As the sun sets on the second day — and first Friday — of the Sundance Film Festival, movie stars, producers and directors alike can head out to screenings or any number of by-invitation-only soirees to mingle with the rich, the famous and the beautiful. Or they can wander over to Temple Har Shalom, home of SchmoozeDance 2003.

Unless you’ve been living in a cultural blackout zone, you’ve heard of the Sundance Festival, Robert Redford’s glitterati-soaked launching ground for independent filmmakers that turns Park City, Utah, into a suburb of Los Angeles each January. You’ve maybe even heard of SlamDance, a spin-off festival that shows films not lucky enough to be chosen for Sundance itself. But you most likely haven’t heard of SchmoozeDance, a one-man production of New Yorker Larry Mark, who this year will screen Jewish indie films not anointed by either of its two namesakes.

While he’s no Hollywood insider, Mark, 42, is somewhat of an expert on Jewish films. For the past seven or so years, from his cramped studio apartment on the Upper West Side (he’s been in the apartment, number 4B, “as in bagel,” for eight), he’s run, a Web site dedicated to promoting Jewish films. (Not surprisingly, Mark, a self-described “frustrated promo person,” is also the mastermind behind Mark, who works in the advertising department of The New York Times, devotes 10 hours a week to his twin Internet ventures, which he runs from a Dell Pentium 4 computer sandwiched between his bed and the stacks of Jewish books that threaten to take over his apartment., launched before Jewish film festivals sprouted like mushrooms across the country, catalogues movies by such unsurprising categories as “Yiddish Films,” “Israeli Drama” and “Jewish Weddings,” and by such less-expected groupings such as “Australian Jewry” and “Prison.”

“It’s an obsession,” Mark said of his pastimes. “Everybody needs one.”

Mark, who has an MBA from Columbia and who rents a car to drive to Scranton, Pa., every three weeks to visit his parents, came up with the idea for SchmoozeDance in 2001 when looking for a way to get out to Sundance. He landed a freelance job writing up the festival for the Forward and sponsored a reception following Friday night services at Har Shalom. He printed up special SchmoozeDance yarmulkes, along with knitted ski caps. All went well except for some competition from director Sandi Dubowski’s Friday night dinner, which he threw while promoting his documentary “Trembling Before God.”

Unlike Sundance, which attracts film aficionados from all over, SchmoozeDance caters to a local crowd. Park City, a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City, is home to the wealthy and lucky mostly attracted by its skiing. The city’s Jewish community is 160 families strong, according to Rabbi Joshua Aaronson, the spiritual leader of the Reform Har Shalom (appropriately enough, “mountain of peace” in English). Aaronson, 41, the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi, moved with his family to Park City last August, having interviewed for his position during Sundance 2002.

Aaronson said that the synagogue only last month began holding weekly Friday night services, so it’s hard to predict how many congregants will show up for SchmoozeDance, though he said 40 seems like a good guess. Or, he said, they may “just want to party on Main Street for Sundance.” Although Mark thinks that fewer than 10 people from Sundance will stop by, Aaronson said that you never know who might want to come to say Kaddish. “It’s big,” Aaronson said of SchmoozeDance. “It’s bigger than ‘Ben-Hur.’”

This January 17 event looks like this: After Friday night services and an oneg, Mark will introduce the films. The scheduled offerings include “The Collector of Bedford Street,” Alice Elliott’s documentary about her mentally challenged neighbor; “The Joel Files,” an Austrian documentary about the German-Jewish family of pop star Billy Joel, and Bonnie Burt and Judith Montell’s “A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma.”

Mark thinks the third film will resonate especially with his Utah audience. “The people in the film are people who immigrated out West and had to create their own institutions, just like people living in Park City and Salt Lake City who arrived from the East and West Coasts and had to set up their own Jewish centers.”

Mark is bringing along four other films just in case people feel like watching more. The synagogue’s bulletin bills the movies as “world” premieres, which is stretching the truth a bit, but hey, this is a promotional event, is it not?

Once again, Mark has had yarmulkes made especially for the evening. The first year’s were teal, Mark said. “That year teal was really big. This year I asked the women in my office. It’s dark purple, so this year they’re purple.”

Is there a future for Mark’s mountain festival? “It could become a place for Jewish indie filmmakers to get together while at Sundance. It could be a venue for indies who don’t make it into Sundance or SlamDance,” Mark said. “Or not,” he smiled. “It could just be an oneg Shabbat.”

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