Cover Story:Coming attractions

This year the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival turns 24 — old enough to qualify as a local institution but young enough to retain its rebel status.

Or so hopes festival Executive Director Peter Stein.

He says the 2004 festival is front-loaded with plenty of provocative cinema, covering everything from Palestinian hip-hop to the 1938 Schmelling-Louis prizefight; from an Orthodox community in Uganda to drug-addicted male prostitutes in Tel Aviv.

But given that diversity, Stein hopes to do much more than just kill the lights and switch on the projector for the July 22 to Aug. 9 annual cinematic extravaganza. “Jewish film encompasses so much,” he says, “but I did notice that certain themes started to surface.”

So, in addition to the dozens of movies set for screening, Stein has also put together three special programs on topics of interest to the Jewish community, including one on Jewish filmmakers’ response to Christian imagery.

The special program “Im-Passioned” made the schedule for one simple reason: Mel Gibson.

Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ” sparked charges of anti-Semitism in some quarters when the film opened last spring. Some would argue that the winner for movie villain of the year has to be Caiaphas, the yellow-toothed, evil-eyed Jewish high priest from Gibson’s film.

Says Stein: “The bloodthirsty high priest. Jesus suffering from Jewish betrayal. Jews have felt silenced in commenting on the impact of those images, but now we have filmmakers beginning to give voice to new perspectives without criticizing the underlying Christian faith.”

The “Im-Passioned” program includes two films dealing with the issue head on: “King of the Jews” and “Sorry, Judas.” The former is a short film by S.F. director Jay Rosenblatt about his childhood fear of the image of the crucified Jesus. The latter is a British documentary from director Celia Lowenstein about Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, as interpreted by cultural critic Howard Jacobson.

Says Stein: “Jacobson defends Judas, not as the betrayer of Christ but for having to take on 2,000 years of anti-Semitic baggage.”

Jacobson himself will participate in the “Im-Passioned” panel discussion set for July 24, along with directors Lowenstein and Rosenblatt, as well as interfaith clergy.

The second special program, “Hollywood and the Holocaust,” features as its centerpiece “Imaginary Witness,” a documentary from director Daniel Anker. Weaving interviews with directors such as Steven Spielberg and Sidney Lumet along with clips from 60 years of cinema, the film offers the “definitive” exploration of the subject, according to Stein.

The program also includes screenings of classics such as Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” (1964), the 1942 Carole Lombard-Jack Benny comedy “To Be or Not to Be,” and the 1981 Oscar-nominated feature “The Boat is Full.”

A July 27 panel discussion includes Anker, Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, University of Southern California film scholar Michael Renov, and Martin Starger, executive producer of “Sophie’s Choice.”

“The Holocaust is the great trauma of Jewish life in the last century,” says Stein. “There’s a need to make sense of what happened historically, and to understand the legacy of the Holocaust.”

Among the questions Stein hopes the panel addresses: Why, at a time when Jews were so influential in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s, did period war films consistently fail to name Jews as victims of Nazi persecution? And why, with hit films like “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful,” does Hollywood’s appropriation of the Holocaust trivialize the subject?

The third special program, “Split Screen,” deals with Arab-Israeli relations. Stein says the festival has long prided itself on screening films about the Middle East, presenting works representing both sides of the conflict. This year is no different. However, he notes, the program will reflect a shift in the art of the Middle East documentary.

“We saw a trend emerging. Filmmakers were not necessarily prosecuting one point of view but rather looking at multiple truths, depicting irreconcilable views in the same film. In some ways it is a reflection of the growing polarization of both sides of this conflict. That’s why we’re calling the program ‘Split Screen.'”

A total of seven films fit into the “Split Screen” series, many from the new wave of Israeli, Palestinian and Western documentarians.

Co-presented by the World Affairs Council of Northern California and Inforum, a division of the Commonwealth Club, the July 25 “Split Screen” panel discussion will include Adnan Joulani and Benny Hernes, the Palestinian and Israeli friends who co-star in “Behind Enemy Lines.” The one-hour documentary shows the two taking each other around Israel and the West Bank seeking reconciliation.

Traditionally, film festival panel discussions on Israel and the Palestinians draw big crowds. “This is the big hot-potato topic,” says Stein. “We’re fortunate to have an audience that’s open-minded about the conflict, but sometimes the audience gets riled up. We always ask people to be respectful, but we present these panels so the audience can ask the hard questions.”

What drives Stein and his staff to scour the planet for the best in Jewish cinema? “The festival,” he says, “is a glimpse into the future of Jewish identity.”

As the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival and one of the Bay Area’s most enduring Jewish cultural institutions, the event perennially brings out a loyal crowd of cinemaniacs. And as usual, it will fan out across the Bay Area, with screenings in San Francisco, Berkeley, Mountain View and San Rafael.

“It’s an intellectually stimulating mix,” says Nancy K. Fishman, the festival’s newly installed program director. “The Jewish community is not monolithic. So I may have my own taste, but we program for the community.”

Stein brought in Fishman, a former marketing executive, soon after he was appointed executive director last year after several years on the board of directors. A Peabody Award-winning filmmaker himself, Stein was also an executive with KQED and the Jewish Museum before joining the festival.

As pumped up as they are about the festival, Stein and Fishman recognize that economic realities pose steep challenges ahead. “Being an arts nonprofit in this city has been a hard obstacle,” he says. “All five sources of funding are down: corporate, private philanthropy, government, individual and foundation. We haven’t had to cut back, but we are careful about keeping costs down.”

Fishman cites the Sept. 11 terror attacks as a trigger for the downturn. “I to suspect it affected moviegoing habits. People hunkered down more.”

That meant fewer subscriptions and advance ticket sales in recent years, though attendance has held steady. And the breakdown of audience seems to have remained roughly 30 percent non-Jewish. For Stein, that number is a sign of success.

Both he and Fishman are convinced this year’s menu will appeal to the broadest possible audience. Opening night, July 22, the festival kicks off with British director Paul Morrison’s 2002 drama, “Wondrous Oblivion,” a coming-of-age story set in London, circa 1960, about an 11-year-old Jewish boy with a passion for cricket.

From there, it’s 18 days of international fare with films from Israel, France, Switzerland, Holland, Russia, Mexico, Belgium and the United States.

Highlights include a lurid interpretation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” from Russian director Valery Fokin. It features a brilliant pantomime performance from Evgeny Miranov as the bugged-out Gregor Samsa, and a boarding house full of Orthodox Jews.

Another film Stein thinks will be an audience favorite is “Recuerdos,” a 2003 Mexican film from director Marcela Arteaga. Making its West Coast premiere, it tells the true story of Luis Frank, a Lithuanian-born Jew who fought in the Spanish Civil War, survived Auschwitz and eventually settled in Mexico.

Also woven into the fabric of the festival: “Mazel Tov!” — a trio of short films celebrating lesbian and gay weddings (including the world premiere of “My Sister, My Bride” by local filmmaker Bonnie Burt), and a retrospective of seven short films from the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem.

The festival once again draws attention to young talent, screening “Klaira’s Story,” a work from the New Jewish Filmmaking Project, a San Francisco Jewish Film Festival program. Director Sam Ball’s 10-minute vignette is from a larger piece, “Old as Our Eyes,” which features Jewish teens interviewing their aging grandparents.

Stein and his staff take satisfaction in presenting ideas and artistry that resonate with Jews and non-Jews alike.

“Jewish film encompasses so much,” he says. “The Jewish Film Festival is a place for everybody.”


Film fest opener takes cricket bat to big themes

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s showtime!

Complete schedule for 24th annual Jewish Film Festival

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.