Varda Bar-Kar | JFI Resident Spotlight: April 2023

Jewish Film Institute
5 min readApr 11, 2023

The Jewish Film Institute is proud to feature 2023 Filmmaker in Residence Varda Bar-Kar and her project Janis Ian & The Art of Song in our JFI Resident Spotlight for the month of April, 2023.

JFI 2023 Filmmaker in Residence Varda Bar-Kar and a still from her documentary Janis Ian & The Art of Song. Courtesy of Varda Bar-Kar.

About the Film: In the mid-60s, Janis Ian, a tiny, teenage Jewish singer-songwriter from New Jersey, scores a hit (“Society’s Child,” 1966) about an interracial relationship. The song launches her illustrious career but also ignites controversy. For the next six decades, Janis overcomes homophobia, record industry misogyny, and a life-threatening illness to produce an indelible body of work that continues to draw large audiences around the globe. Janis Ian & the Art of Song (working title) chronicles the singer’s epic life journey from her Jewish childhood on a chicken farm in New Jersey through the release of the disruptive Breaking Silence album, where she came out publicly about her same-sex marriage.

Jewish Film Institute: What inspired you to make this film?

Varda Bar-Kar: Following the HBO broadcast of our documentary Fandango at the Wall, I contemplated where to focus my creative energy next. It occurred to me that I’d rarely seen a film whose central subjects reflects my identity — a complex female artist of immigrant Jewish descent who defies labels and whose work is shaped by her determination to serve the greater good. I remembered that as a teenager, I listened to Janis Ian’s album Between the Lines and cried because her songs affirmed my experience of the world. As I researched Ms. Ian’s extraordinary life and music, I realized it was her story I now wanted to tell.

Behind the scenes photos from Janis Ian & the Art of Song featuring director Varda Bar-Kar and screen icon Lily Tomlin. Courtesy of Varda Bar-Kar.

“It’s helpful to hear how my JFI Filmmaker Residency cohort is approaching their projects. Their unique perspectives and approaches expand my creative landscape.” -Varda Bar-Kar

JFI: Where are you now in the filmmaking process?

VBK: We have completed principal photography and have two pick up shoots planned. We have launched into post production. We are in the process of raising our next phase of funding.

JFI: How is the JFI Filmmaker Residency helping you develop your project?

VBK: It’s helpful to hear how my JFI Filmmaker Residency cohort is approaching their projects. Their unique perspectives and approaches expand my creative landscape. The residency’s guest presenters enrich the overall experience. Our conversations about the language we use to talk about our projects have been extremely valuable. In addition, I’m energized by the one on one conversations I have had with fellow residents, and am grateful for the JFI Filmmaker in Residence guidance to potential funding sources.

A recent portrait of Janis Ian and a behind the scenes photo of director Varda Bar-Kar with producer Alessandra Pasquino. Courtesy of Varda Bar-Kar.

“Janis’s respect and admiration for her Jewish immigrant grandparents, their traditions and lore alongside her defiance of limiting labels, both in her life and art, expand our notions of what it means to be Jewish.” -Varda Bar-Kar

JFI: How does this story add to our collective understanding of Jewish life, culture, history or identity?

VBK: Janis’ life and music touch on the multi-faceted effects of the Jewish diaspora on our collective and individual psyche — including the direct or inherited trauma of forced dislocation. Janis’s respect and admiration for her Jewish immigrant grandparents, their traditions and lore alongside her defiance of limiting labels, both in her life and art, expand our notions of what it means to be Jewish. Her contribution to the American musical canon highlights that role American Jews play in enriching and deepening the culture of the United States.

JFI: If you could screen your film as a double feature with any film, what movie would you choose and why?

VBK: I think a double feature with my film Big Voice, which follows a year in the life of a high school choir teacher, would be fitting in light of the fact that Janis’s father was a choir teacher and she is fond of the film.

About the Filmmaker: Varda Bar-Kar is an award-winning filmmaker whose work focuses on meaningful stories that explore the breadth and diversity of the human condition. Her feature documentary Big Voice, chronicling a year in the life of a determined high school choir director, was acquired by Netflix and broadcast on PBS, winning a Bronze Telly Award. Her documentary Fandango at the Wall, about a gathering of song and dance in the 300-year-old Son Jarocho tradition at the United States-Mexico border, premiered on HBO/HBO Max. The accompanying album, Fandango at the Wall in New York, won a Grammy. She lives and works in Santa Monica, CA.

Instagram: @varda_bar.kar.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/varda.bar.kar
Website: https://www.vardabarkar.com/

About the JFI Filmmakers in Residence Program: The JFI Filmmakers in Residence Program is a year-long artist residency that provides creative, marketing, and production support for emerging and established filmmakers whose documentary projects explore and expand thoughtful consideration of Jewish history, life, culture, and identity.

Learn more at: https://jfi.org/for-filmmakers

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Jewish Film Institute

The Jewish Film Institute, based in San Francisco, champions bold films and filmmakers that expand and evolve the Jewish story for audiences everywhere. jfi.org