21st S.F. Jewish Film Festival will flaunt its coming of age

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival turns 21 this year, but it's holding on to its youth.

Expect more films by twentysomething directors, more movies about young people, and even a new program for budding teenage filmmakers.

But the festival, which opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 6, won't forsake its older audience either.

"We have always made an effort to program something for young people," explained Janis Plotkin, the festival director. "We've spent the first 21 years building our organization and archiving our efforts. Now we want to look forward to the next generation of audience members."

The youthful theme of the film festival, which consists of 44 works to be shown at four Bay Area locations, has to do with its coming of age.

In an effort to further expand and deepen youth interest, the festival will show an influx of works by filmmakers under the age of 30. Some of those include "Waiting for the Messiah," "Trembling Before G-d," "Fighter" and "The Bicycle."

Likewise, there are a handful of films about school-age kids and young adults, including "Promises," "Blue and White in Red Square," "Total Love" and "Brownsville Black and White."

The festival will also launch the New Jewish Film Project, a filmmaker program for a group of 12 teens to be selected through a Bay Area-wide search.

Among the works by up-and-coming filmmakers, "Waiting for the Messiah," by 27-year-old director Daniel Burman, is a semi-autobiographical story about a twentysomething Argentine Jew searching for his destiny. "It's a lovely, charming slice of Buenos Aires life," said Sam Ball, the festival's associate director. "Total Love" features the Israeli actress Tinkerbell as a rave-kid who gets caught smuggling a new aphrodisiac into India. "It reflects the Israelis' fascination with trance music and their fascination with India," said Plotkin. "Brownsville Black and White," by the late American filmmaker Richard Broadman, features a cast of Jewish and African-American teenagers in Brooklyn who band together and play on integrated sports teams, "years before Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers," said Ball.

"In one sense it is a very simple story, but it also deals with broad issues with tremendous societal implications."

In addition to the emphasis on youth, this year's line-up has many global influences, with films from 13 different countries. Presenting a worldview provides moviegoers the opportunity to "reflect on different kinds of experiences within the Jewish mosaic" and "show us in the ways that others see us," said Plotkin.

Added Ball, "Judaism is a worldwide culture. Every year we have films that are specific to cultural borders and transcend cultural borders. We're always trying to push the envelope in terms of our perception of Jewish identity."

The aforementioned "Waiting for the Messiah" and "The Seventh Day," for instance, are both about Jews from Argentina.

"We don't often get to see films about the Jewish community in Argentina," said Plotkin, "yet I believe it has the third-largest population of Jews outside of Israel."

"Inside Out," a romantic comedy about the state of relations between Jews and Christians of many races, is the first South African film the festival has ever screened.

"American audiences will look upon this and see that it reflects our sensibility of racial relations from back in the 1960s," said Plotkin. "We've come a long way, but they're still sort of in the beginning of the whole 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' phase."

The opening-night film "Once We Grow Up," directed by the French Renaud Cohen, is a romantic comedy that deals with a French journalist trying to understand his Algerian Jewish roots. That showing will be preceded by a reception where, for $21, guests can sip champagne, nibble on desserts and listen to live music.

The short, "Doda Diya," meanwhile, deals with an elderly woman's Tunisian Jewish roots, and "Key," from Spain, examines Sephardi issues.

The global influence is further enhanced this year by the relatively large number of Israeli films — about 12 or 13 as opposed to the normal handful, said Plotkin.

This is partially due to the high quality of the Israeli films submitted to the festival, the organizers maintained. "Time of Favor" is a good example — having swept the Israeli Academy Awards with six wins, including best picture.

But the jolt is also due to the intifada and its impact on Jews around the world.

"The current conflict made us realize we really wanted to show as broad a picture of Israel as possible," said Plotkin. "We hope our Israeli films will teach our audiences something about Israeli society other than what we read about in the newspaper."

"Promises" presents telling interviews with seven Israeli and Palestinian children who live within a 20-mile radius of one another yet know little about each other's lives.

"Street Under Fire," a documentary, provides the viewpoint of Gilo residents about the violence that has erupted in their once-peaceful Jerusalem neighborhood.

Though those films and some others deal with the Mideast conflict, none is by a Palestinian filmmaker.

"There just wasn't much [submitted] this year," said Plotkin. "And our assumption was that perhaps Palestinians wouldn't want to be in our festival given the sensitivities of the conflict."

Because of those sensitivities, Plotkin said, the festival team has really tried to create an environment conducive to "coming together as a community and talking about how we feel about things."

Two panel discussions will focus on Israel. The first follows "Street Under Fire" and will include speakers from the Israeli peace groups Peace Now, Parent Circle, Bat Shalom-Jerusalem Link and New Profile, along with the film's director. The second, a discussion with Israeli scholar and Meron Benvenisti, former Jerusalem deputy mayor, follows "Promises."

Of course, the festival also offers some American-made films; those "look not at the black and white but the gray of how we interface with other communities," said Plotkin.

Exemplifying that is the closing-night piece, "Trembling Before G-d." The documentary cameos Chassidic and Orthodox Jews who are gay and lesbian. Along with having global implications, the film also strikes at the core of religious identity and tradition in the modern world.

"It's already been on the international scene and at gay and lesbian film festivals," said Plotkin. "But for us, in the context of a Jewish audience, the discussion is going to go onto many new levels."

Likewise, some other films have already debuted at other venues and film festivals, some even locally. Those include "Family Secret," screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and "The Cross Inscribed in the Star of David," shown in the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Another, "One of the Hollywood Ten," was part of the 2001 San Francisco International Film Festival and has been screened recently on the Starz! cable network. It stars Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum.

Another highlight of this year's program is the screening of "Jewish Luck," a silent film from Russia that had been included in the 1988 Jewish film festival. The funny adaptation of the Sholom Aleichem story "Mendel the Matchmaker" will feature an entirely new score, however, composed by Bay Area musician Daniel Hoffman. He will present the score live, along with the San Francisco Klezmer Experience.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will be held at four venues: the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Wheeler Auditorium on the U.C. Berkeley campus, the Fox Theatre in Redwood City and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

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