By Gary Meyer
Regardless of one’s religious attitudes, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival provides a place of worship for thousands who might be called “Movie Devout.”
Jewish Film Festivals have become a big deal in the film world. Deborah Kaufman created the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 1980 to stimulate conversations of politics and culture in the Jewish community using cinema to start the dialogue. The first Festival, in 1981, featured ten international independent films and crowds showed up enthusiastic for more. Janis Plotkin joined her in 1982 and the first Jewish Film Festival in the world became a sparkplug for more. Unaffiliated Jews explained that coming to the Festival was kind of a High Holidays for them where they could meet like-minded people and make lasting connections.
Phone calls came in asking “How can we start a similar festival in our city?” In response the Festival Directors wrote a book on how to organize an event like theirs, emphasizing the importance “of including and celebrating films about communities not often heard from in mainstream life, including Sephardic Jewish life, the culture of Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab lands), gays and lesbians, as well as quirky and experimental cinema that expanded the notion of Jewish film.” 
There are now hundreds of Jewish Film Festivals around the globe, and the San Francisco Festival is probably the largest, having grown to five theaters throughout the Bay Area. The 36th edition, playing now through August 7, will present 67 films from 15 countries.
The Festival’s mission continues under the guidance of Executive Director Lexi Leban and Program Director Jay Rosenblatt, drawing as broad a range of audiences as anyinternational cinema event. The selection is superb, offering many more films than most people can see. The truly committed among us can catch the majority of films, as the festival has only one screening at a time. As with audiences at Noir City and the Silent Film Festival, a community of fans will spend entire days at their selected venue, joining friends, old and new, for a cinematic holiday.
We have been lucky to see a selection of the offerings in advance. Three delicious food films are reviewed by Gaetano Kazuo Maida in “Oy- Have We Got Food Films For You.”
(Linking to titles below will take you to program notes and ticket information. Official film websites and trailers are at the end of this article.)
SAND STORM was one of my favorite films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Writer/Director Elite Zexer offers a rare look into an IsraeIi Bedouin village where Jalila (Riba Bial-Asour) prepares the welcome celebration for her husband’s new wife. Men are not allowed at the event though the older women attend wearing fake moustaches. Their four daughters help and are silent about how they feel having a second wife living in a fancier abode next door. The film explores the growing discomfort of long-held traditions. Layla (Lamis Ammar), their oldest daughter, is of “marrying age” according to her parents but her interests are elsewhere—not with the man chosen for her but a University student. Forbidden to see him, Layla is of a different mind. The tension in the family builds as the father, who has provided contemporary advantages to Layla including a cell phone and an education, is prepared to give up her promising future because of an arranged marriage to a man she does not really know. We watch as the torn mother goes through a transformation just as Layla makes unexpected decisions. We can see these changes not only in their actions but the powerful body language that these two stunning actresses convey with unforgettable performances that match the complex script and subtle handling of a story I will not soon forget.
The Festival has a large selection of new Israeli offerings from dramas to documentary and television series covering a range of subjects.
THE TENTH MAN– One of the annual surprises at the Festival is being taken into unfamiliar territory of Jewish life. We think we have seen it all but numerous selections prove otherwise. Argentinian director Daniel Burman (LAST EMBRACE, EMPTY NEST, ALL IN) returns with such a film. Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is a middle-aged economist living in New York whose father, Usher, asks him to come home to Buenos Aires for a visit and to help with some family affairs. Ariel arrives but Usher is mysteriously absent, though everybody knows him. His Foundation helps the needy and as a result he is worshipped like a God. His father has assigned Eva (Julieta Zylbergberg) to guide Ariel through a series of unexpected tasks he is assigned by the mysterious Usher via telephone. Eva is Orthodox and not allowed to speak to Ariel. With continual humor we see in his new every day life and eventual romantic inclinations Ariel becomes a changed person, putting aside his frustration about his nearly existential, Godot-like parent. The pace is fast, the observations often very funny and the support system between people in the community inspires Ariel to say, “You people make economic theory collapse.”
What would a Jewish celebration be without humor? The Festival offers both comic documentaries and narratives that will keep audiences laughing. Here is a selection.
INDIGNATION– Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) enters college in 1951, allowing him to avoid being drafted into the Korean War. Though from a Jewish family, he considers himself an atheist. The college is a Christian one where students are expected to attend church services. He is assigned two Jewish roommates with whom he is friendly but keeps his distance from other students until he meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). A beautiful blonde who exchanges glances with Marcus during classes, she agrees to go on a date. She is bluntly honest, urging him to open up as well. The date concludes with she surprises him with her sexual aggressiveness. Confused but fascinated, their friendship develops with some uneasy twists. Marcus visits the Dean’s office to discuss issues and the debate that follows is an astonishing piece of cinematic theater with Tracy Letts once again delivering a great performance. Don’t be surprised if the audiences breaks into applause.
Director James Shamus earned his BA, MA, and Ph.D. in English at U.C. Berkeley and is a hero in the independent film world for running the successful distribution company Focus Features as well as producing (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN; SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) and writing (THE ICE STORM; CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; EAT,DRINK,MAN,WOMAN) several films with Ang Lee. Now he proves to be a masterful director with this coming-of-age adaption of a Philip Roth novel. His attention to detail, from the art direction to choices of music, compliment the strong performances and intelligent script. It is a fascinating film that does not become a feel-good experience but is certain to spark conversations. James Shamus will appear at the Rafael Theatre screening on Friday, August 5th.
The Sundance Film Festival has become a major showcase for new movies that are selected for SFJFF. INDIGNATION, SAND STORM and NORMAN LEAR are joined by several others.
After writing for early television comedy and variety shows, Norman Lear went into motion pictures, writing, directing and/or producing films including DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE, COLD TURKEY, STAND BY ME, PRINCESS BRIDE and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. But Norman Lear became a household name when he challenged television comedy norms with his ALL IN THE FAMILY and its various spin-offs like MAUDE, SANFORD AND SON, THE JEFFERSONS, and MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN. In 1980 he left television to start People for the American Way, a non-profit committed to speaking out for the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of constitutional freedoms. At 94 years he has now written a biography, stars in this new documentary and is still an activist. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (DETROPIA, THE BOYS OF BARAKA, Oscar-nominated JESUS CAMP), have captured hours of wonderful stories by Lear and others, mixing them with plenty of clips you will enjoy. Unfortunately the filmmakers felt having a little boy walking through sets wearing Lear’s signature hat while he tells of his childhood would be clever. It is a distraction and you just have to endure it because the rest is worth the wait. And a dinner where Lear joins Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks gets the biggest laugh of the show.
Norman Lear will receive the Freedom of Expression Award at the Sunday, July 24 screening, 3:15 at the Castro. He will join former Festival Executive Director Peter Stein in conversation.
The Festival celebrates artists of many types. Other comics are featured in ROBERT KLEIN STILL CAN’T STOP HIS LEG and THE LAST LAUGH, exploring the role of humor in the face of tragic events with Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Leonard Nimoy is the focus of FOR THE LOVE OF SPOCK and ART AND HEART: THE WORLD OF ISAIAH SHEFFER offers a peak behind the scenes with the artistic director of Symphony Space and host of “Selected Shorts.” An adventurous dance company is shakes things up in MR. GAGA while A NEW COLOR: THE ART OF BEING EDYTHE BOONE follows the Bay Area artist and activist. The little known photographer Jack Pashovsky is discovered in THE MAN WHO SHOT HOLLYWOOD showing with KOUDELKA SHOOTING HOLY LAND.
There are movies about gender and class issues, surprising stories from World War II, political thrillers, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, coming-of-age tales short subjects and more for many interests. Some categories are found here. We enjoy exploring the program book (online or on paper) to make discoveries.
Filmmakers, writers and actors appear at many showings.
- Quoted from the History of the SFJJFF
The 2016 Festival runs from July 21-August 7 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the CinéArts Theatre in Palo Alto, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, the Roda Theatre at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley and the Landmark Piedmont Theater in Oakland.
“Our Stories, Your Screen” is the year around On Demand service currently offering 57 films from throughout the Festival’s history.
Trailers and Websites for films in this article
SAND STORM (followed by selection of trailers at the Festival)
Jewish Film Institute and San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Social Media:
Gary Meyer started his first theater in the family barn when he was twelve years old. He directed a monster movie there, and wanted to show it on the set. It became The Above-the-Ground Theatre, where over 250 films were screened, along with live productions, workshops and the publication of a literary/arts/satire zine, Nort! and a film newsletter, Ciné. After film school at SFSU, his first job as a booker for United Artists Theatres was a “grad school” that prepared him to co-found Landmark Theatres in 1975. It was the first national arthouse chain in the US focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on many projects, including Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas; created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games; and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007-2014. He founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in April 2014, and is preparing the EatDrinkFilms Festival for Summer, 2016 with a national tour to follow. A day of food films will be presented as part of Food Day on October 24 in San Francisco.