Jewish Film Festival bucking old stereotypes, age barriers

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The folks staging this year's Jewish version of the Sundance Film Festival are dusting off the projectors and prepping the movie houses for the newest round of eclectic picks.

"We're trying to present an alternative to negative stereotypes of Jews and to break open the meaning of Jewish identity in the 20th century," said Janis Plotkin, director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The 17th annual fest, which opens Thursday, July 17 at the Castro Theatre, will return with more local names and faces — and more non-Jewish independent filmmakers — than in years past.

Plotkin described the true indie as an offbeat or exotic composition that reflects personal journeys or political and social trends. Unlike studio directors, an independent director has complete freedom to film and edit as creativity dictates.

"We see it as taking one step further: [the filmmaker] asking the questions that Hollywood doesn't," she said.

Having previously extended its act to Berkeley and Palo Alto, the fest this year also will trek across the Golden Gate to the Lark Theatre in Marin.

And Plotkin has spiced the program with local offerings — festival founder Deborah Kaufman's documentary "Blacks and Jews" and Andy Wilson's "Bubbeh Lee & Me" are a couple — and with works by younger amateurs from all over the world.

Like Kabbalists, filmmakers once had to be 40 to capture the soul of their work and to corral film financing, joked Sam Ball, 28-year-old assistant festival director, in a recent interview. It used to be that "the youngest feature filmmaker in France [was] 45."

But today, filmmaking comes naturally to Gen-Xers, who represent about a third of the program and have been exposed to technology and visual media from the cradle onwards, he noted.

Many entered the film world with the advent of High-8 video, a new and cheaper medium that reproduces an image sharp enough for the big screen. Also, High-8 is digitally formatted, which, unlike analog video, means it can be transferred to 25-mm and 35-mm film.

Because of those technological advances, people of all ages and economic backgrounds can produce a decent-quality film for as little as $3,000, Plotkin added.

The festival itself, of course, costs a great deal more. Box office receipts bring in about $170,000 but that means another $230,000 must be raised to cover three weeks of screenings.

When she's not fund-raising, Plotkin and her team scour international festivals for independent films and videos that cast the Jewish experience in a new light.

Unlike festivals past, there is no main theme — besides Jewishness — that links this year's flicks.

But add to the local fare a smattering of films by non-Jewish directors from Europe and the Middle East; films on sundry topics such as chazzanut (chants), DES sterility, Jewish influences in Hollywood, Yiddish karaoke, and an Israeli suspense thriller — and you have as much variety as you would in any international film fest.

All told, there will be 38 films from 13 countries screened July 17-24 in San Francisco, July 26-31 at Berkeley's UC Theatre, July 27-31 at Palo Alto's Spangenberg Theatre, and Aug. 2-4 in Marin.

There also will be appearances by a variety of filmmakers and actors.

In fact, festival organizers plan a special tribute to German filmmaker Michael Verhoeven following the San Francisco screening of his latest, "My Mother's Courage."

Verhoeven's black comedy depicts a day in the life of a Hungarian-Jewish playwright's mother during the early days of war. His film follows the mother from her shopping routine to arrest and deportation by the Nazis. At first she surrenders to her fate, but eventually she takes a daring stand that saves her life.

The festival also will feature screenings of Verhoeven's earlier Jewish-themed films — "The Nasty Girl" and "The White Rose."

Although Verhoeven isn't Jewish, Plotkin said he and other non-Jewish filmmakers who portray Jewish and Israeli subjects as resisters and questioners of authority help to debunk "a right-wing, nativist xenophobia" that has gripped Europe in recent years.

"How these films are interpreted by Europeans right now is very important," she added.

Other non-Jewish filmmakers represented by their films will include the Palestinian Elia Suleiman, whose "Chronicle of a Disappearance" explores Palestinian identity in the Jewish state; the African-American Bari Scott of "Blacks and Jews," an examination of how the media feeds inter-ethnic conflict; and the Italian Francesco Rosi, whose "The Truce," from a Primo Levi story, chronicles the spiritual reawakening of an Italian Jewish chemist after he is freed from German war camps.

"The Truce" kicks off the festival's opening night — and will only play in San Francisco. It has already received four Italian cinema awards, and was featured at this year's Cannes Film Festival in France.

With its seasoned director, the film is a couple notches above most indies in production quality, according to Plotkin.

Over all, the festival's director was pleased with all the films in this year's schedule, which came together in unexpected ways.

She assessed the process as "synchronistic and magic."

Many of the works, she explained, were culled from non-traditional venues and through insider tips.

"There's a lot of films here that wouldn't [get to the public] any other way," said Ball of the sometimes haphazard acquisition process.

Ball's own mother led him to "Yiddish, Yiddish" after viewing it at a Yiddish institute in France. That made-for-television documentary features modern Jewish writers, performers and scientists who have reconnected with the dialect.

A previously unavailable film, "Ein Stehaufmannchen," is a series of home-movie clips of the former president of the Jewish Museum San Francisco, Claude Ganz.

The film tells Ganz's tale of exile and the rebuilding of life and family in America, and includes live footage from his home in pre-World War II Germany. The war refugee had wanted the film released postmortem but finally yielded to Plotkin's yearly requests for it, and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

Ganz, currently a cultural and economic advisor in Sarajevo, also was responsible for finding the festival's first Bosnian film, "Greta Ferusic," about a Holocaust survivor who goes on to become a prominent architect and university administrator in Sarajevo.

When the city is besieged in 1992, Ferusic refuses to be dislocated a second time by war, and once again survives the destructive power of ethnic hate.

The most locally noteworthy film is Scott, Kaufman and Alan Snitow's "Blacks and Jews," which revisits key events of recent years in the downward spiral of black-Jewish relations.

Blacks and Jews had formed alliances during the civil rights movement, the film indicates. But since then, according to the filmmakers, the media has sensationalized the Crown Heights incident, Oakland's Castlemont High School affair and the perception that Jewish entertainment moguls exploit black talent.

It is those images that have driven a deep wedge between the two cultures, they commented.

Their film is the first "that looks at how politicians and the media manipulate the races based on tensions," Ball said.

Opening-night festivities, celebrity and director appearances, and a special panel discussion on "Blacks and Jews" (moderated by Mayor Willie Brown) following the documentary's screening at the Castro round out the 17th annual festival.

Ball noted the human diversity found in both the films and their audiences.

"There are so many faces to this tradition," he said of the festival. "I think that says a lot about Jewish identity as a whole."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.