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From Burns Film Center Employee to Filmmaker for Popular Festival

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A still from the short film “The Victorias,” one of the entries in this year’s Jewish Film Festival at the Jacob Burns Film Center.

As a Horace Greeley High School senior in 2012-13 and during time off from college, Ethan Fuirst worked at the Jacob Burns Film Center selling tickets, scooping popcorn and directing patrons to the correct screen.

Next week Fuirst returns to the independent theater in a far different capacity.

Fuirst’s 15-minute short film “The Victorias” will be shown as one of the entries in this year’s Jewish Film Festival, the Burns’ longest-running annual event and arguably its most popular.

Next Tuesday, Oct. 11, he will be part of a Q&A with festival curator Bruni Burress following the film’s screening. Fuirst will appear with fellow filmmaker and Westchester product Sophie Parens. Parnes also has a short film, “Zaida,” on the “Exciting New Voices Close to Home: Shorts Program.”

“My parents and grandparents are coming, and the Burns means a lot to me as a former employee, but my parents and grandparents are people who’ve lived in Westchester for a long time,” Fuirst said. “They’ve gone to the Burns as moviegoers, and so the Burns just doesn’t mean something to me, it’s someplace for me to present my work to my family on screens that they associate with validity.”

Fuirst, who was a film major at Kenyon College in Ohio, said “The Victorias” consists of talking with seven performers who he worked with at the New York City Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

They played the role of Victoria Confino, a 14-year-old Sephardic immigrant in 1916, one of thousands of immigrants from more than 20 nations who lived in the apartment building on Orchard Street between the 1860s and 2011. That building is now home to the museum.

All of the performers who played Confino’s character were laid off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When that happened, the group lost more than a job.

“This was not just about employment,” said Fuirst, who worked as a museum tour guide. “It was about performing and portraying another life and the connection they had to each other.”

“Zaida” is a short film by Sleepy Hollow native Sophie Parens and dedicated to her grandfather, Henri Parens, who survived the Holocaust as a pre-teen. It is part of the Jewish Film Festival that opens this week at the Jacob Burns Film Center.

Parens, from Sleepy Hollow, made “Zaida” following the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Va. It is dedicated to her grandfather, Henri Parens, who survived the Holocaust as a pre-teen and went on to become a noted psychoanalyst who dedicated his career to fighting prejudice.

The two-week festival kicks off this Thursday evening with a screening of “Karaoke,” an Israeli comedy about an upper middle class Sephardic couple. The festival continues for two full weeks of films addressing a wide variety of subjects and issues about the Jewish experience.

Burres said selecting the roughly two dozen films and programs that make up the Jewish Film Festival is always an exceedingly difficult task. This year she decided to place an extra emphasis toward humor given the current time.

“There are some serious stories and wonderful films that are about looking at our past and present and difficult stories,” Burres said. “So, I’ve always, since I started programming, wanted to have that humor part of Jewish culture as well.”

Among her notable selections is “Valiant Heart,” a French film about six Jewish children who in August 1942 take refuge where no one would think to look for them.

Another recommended film is “iMordecai,” starring Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane, a married couple who are Holocaust survivors. Hirsch’s character, Mordecai, finally decides to get an iPhone, which opens up his world to all kinds of possibilities making him feel young again.

For those who prefer a forgotten bit of American and Jewish history, there’s “Jews of the Wild West.” Jewish immigrants or their children also made their mark in the west in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In fact, the first American western, “The Great Train Robbery,” the star was Broncho Billy Anderson, whose real name was Max Aronson. Then there was Levi Straus, who made his fortune by designing comfortable pants for ranchers. They were just two of the estimated 100,000 Jews who migrated west in the decades leading up to World War I.

For a complete schedule of films that are part of this year’s Jewish Film Festival, and for tickets to these and other screenings, visit

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