In 18th year, director focuses on Israeli flicks

Squeezing in a photo shoot between film screenings, Janis Plotkin wasn't happy about having her picture taken.

"The films should be the focus of the festival," she said. "Not me."

Nonetheless, as the 18th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was about to get under way, it was hard to ignore the frenetic pace of the festival director's life.

The world's largest and oldest Jewish film festival, which runs from Thursday to Aug. 3 in four locales, was still a couple of weeks off.

But Plotkin's schedule could no longer be neatly contained in a daily planner — not with 40 films in the lineup, and the logistics of dealing with a couple of dozen out-of-town filmmakers and panelists.

The films in the festival's chai or 18th season are a culturally diverse and stylistically eclectic mix of independent productions, a trademark of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In addition to the major focus, Israeli films, other movies examine Eastern European and Holocaust stories, gay and lesbian issues and Palestinian concerns.

Mid-morning, Plotkin introduced the opening-night film "The Dybbuk of the Holy Apple Field," at a screening at the Roxie Theatre, where the festival was first held locally before moving uptown to the larger, more opulent Castro Theatre.

Plotkin, who lives in Oakland, was having one of those high-wire act days that she's gotten used to over the years. She had a late morning appointment for a noir-style photo shoot at the Castro. But she didn't want to leave because the Roxie projector broke the night before and she was afraid of a repeat performance.

Her lunch plans to meet with a filmmaker flying in from Los Angeles also hit a snag. A staff member was going to pick the director up at the airport "but she called me and told me she spilled gasoline in her car and now she's coming to pick up my car," Plotkin said.

Despite such distractions, Plotkin returned her attention to the business at hand: this year's festival.

"Part of the goal is to present the expansive definition of what it means to be a Jew," she said. "You can be a Jew from Tunisia, a Buddhist Jew, a gay Jew or a disabled Jew and find yourself at the Jewish Film Festival. All those communities are represented."

The festival's philosophy rings true in terms of the 13 Israeli films being shown in this 50th anniversary year of Israeli statehood, said Sam Ball, the festival's associate director. "We're showing 13 completely different points of view on Israel.

"It was a stunning year for Israeli cinema," he said. "We had to exclude some very good films because we didn't want to have 20 of 40 films be Israeli. There's a young group of filmmakers who are just now coming into their own."

Yossi Somer, the director of "The Dybbuk of the Holy Apple Field," a mythic and visually stunning modern love story based on an old Yiddish folk tale, is a talent to watch, Plotkin said.

At $3 million, his film, which debuted at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival, is the biggest-budget feature in Israeli history. His next project, a contemporary interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland," is in pre-production in Los Angeles.

Other Israeli choices include Eytan Fox's "Florentene," which Plotkin described as an Israeli "Tales of the City," and the North American premiere of Sini Bar-David's "The South: Alice Never Lived Here," a documentary set in Jaffa linking three generations of strong Sephardic women.

Three offerings, told from a Palestinian perspective, might prove more controversial.

"We're not afraid of controversy," Plotkin said. "The strength of being an [independent, nonprofit] arts organization is it gives us the freedom to take risks. We are willing to push the envelope on issues of concern. We want to allow the filmmakers to make their statements and let our community grapple with it in a context of an audience experience."

Who's to argue with a successful formula? The festival, founded by Bay Area filmmaker Deborah Kaufman, who stepped down as co-director in 1993, continues to thrive at four venues in the progressive Bay Area.

The festival began in April of 1981 at UCLA before moving to the Roxie that August. The next year, it included showings in both San Francisco and Berkeley, expanding to include the Peninsula in 1996 and to Marin County in 1997.

Last year's combined attendance of 33,700 came close to matching the record of 34,000 in 1996. The first year, 2,500 tickets were sold.

Celebrating the festival's chai anniversary, organizers wanted to pay tribute to their first San Francisco audiences by putting a prominent focus on gay and lesbian films. This year, seven will be shown.

When the festival got started at the Roxie, the audience was largely lesbians who lived in the neighborhood, Plotkin said. Many were coming to terms with both their sexual orientation and their Jewishness.

At 18, she said, "we feel like the festival has been reinvigorated with life…We're coming full circle now by acknowledging the gay and lesbian community."

On Tuesday, July 21, an evening of gay and lesbian programming, "Queer Jews Creating Change," is highlighted by the Bay Area premiere of "Treyf." New York filmmakers Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky will attend the event at the Castro.

The humorous, personal documentary about two Jewish lesbians who meet and fall in love at a Passover seder explores culture, family, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Zionism and progressive politics.

The evening's program, sponsored by Cultural Equity Fund of the San Francisco Arts Commission and co-presented by the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, includes two other short films and a seminar with such panelists as lesbian Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert, co-director of the women's studies program at Temple University, and Warsaw Ghetto-born Irena Klepfisz, a poet and activist in the lesbian-feminist and Jewish communities.

The 42 other Jewish film festivals around the world look to San Francisco as the model for programming and innovations, Plotkin said. In fact, she and Kaufman started a small nonprofit film and video distribution company in 1982 called Atara, which supplies many other festivals with programming packages.

This year's $477,000 budget for the festival and the organization's side projects marks an increase of $25,000 from last year.

Although 48 percent of its revenue is generated by box office receipts, the festival still runs on a tight budget. Plotkin accepts the continuous challenge of fund-raising.

The most rewarding part of the job, she said, is the festival itself. "The energy and excitement of the audience is unique. I get a sense of validation from each person that's there that it's OK to be Jewish."

On the other hand, there's a festival task Plotkin dreads. "I don't like cleaning up," she said. "The whole staff still does it after the closing-night parties."

This day, however, clean-up hassles were still in the future. The immediate concern, the photo shoot at the Castro, was taking longer than expected.

Plotkin and Ball struck pensive poses while sitting in the slightly worn red velvet seats of the empty theater, trying to capture that illusive noir-look.

"Sam, we need cigarettes," Plotkin joked. "Actually, we need martinis."

While the photographer changed film, Plotkin noticed that the right exit doors opened onto a spacious outdoor hospitality and reception area that the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival had set up for its annual event, which was taking place that week.

"I have tent envy, Sam," Plotkin said. "It would be so nice to have one. But it costs $80,000 a week. Oh, that's the next dream."

Said Ball, "We could probably get a teepee for $20,000."