28th annual Jewish film fest is the reel deal

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

Part of this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival comes in shades of red, white and green.

That’s because this year’s 19-day festival, which begins next week, includes a special program featuring films about the Jews of Mussolini’s Italy: “Italian Jews During Fascism.”

Sounds like a juicy topic for a film fest. After all, Italian Jews endured Nazi-inspired racial laws during the war. More than 8,000 died in the Holocaust. But as festival program director Nancy Fishman learned, Italian filmmakers had not turned their attention to this piece of history until relatively recently.

“Though there was this neorealist tradition in Italian cinema, it was mostly from the perspective of non-Jews,” says Fishman. “It hadn’t really looked adequately at the experience of Jews. But in the last 10 years, a lot of Jewish films have come out.”

The special program is presented in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco. The 28th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival begins July 24 and runs through Aug. 11. As usual, it’s a regional event, with screenings taking place at five locations around the Bay Area.

Fishman and festival executive director Peter Stein agree they’ve hit the mother lode of choice documentaries, features, shorts, animated films and even some television shows from Israel.

“We’re not just looking for competently made films,” Stein says, “but the extra element that adds something surprising or significant to our program.”

A total of 114 screenings of 70 films from 19 countries make this the most expansive lineup in festival history. In addition to the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco, festival screenings take place at the Roda Theatre (in the Berkeley Repertory complex), Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, the JCC of San Francisco and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Every year, Stein and Fishman sample the best of world cinema to find the perfect festival lineup and to arrive at compelling themes, such as this year’s Italian-Jewish focus.

Maudlin pop fare (such as 1997 Oscar winner “Life is Beautiful”) aside, Holocaust-themed films from Italy have broken new ground. Several will be on the 2008 festival schedule.

Among them, “Volevo Solo Vivere” (“I Only Wanted to Live”), a Steven Spielberg-produced documentary tracing the lives of nine Italian Auschwitz survivors. Also on the schedule is “Perlasca, an Italian Hero,” the true story of an Italian businessman who rescued 5,200 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Putting the program together was a labor of amore for Fishman, who briefly lived in Milan after college. She confesses a love for all things Italiano. (However, she notes, “I speak the language badly.”)

To enhance the Italian flavor of the screenings, the festival worked out a promotional deal with Gelateria Naia’s stores in Berkeley and San Francisco (gelato is Italian ice cream), as well as the Double Rainbow store in San Rafael and Palo Alto’s CineArts concession stand. Present a SFJFF ticket stub on particular dates and a free size upgrade is yours.

Other special programs this year include one on diversity in Israel, a timely subject coming on the heels of Israel’s 60th anniversary. Films such as “Jerusalem is Proud to Present” (about a gay pride march) and “The Secrets” (about two Orthodox women who fall in love) explore Israeli queer identity.

Israel’s democratic foundation is tested in films such as “Praying in Her Own Voice,” which examines Orthodox women seeking gender equality at the Western Wall; and “Bilin My Love,” about radical left-wing Israeli activists (read: pro-Palestinian Israeli Jews).

“We’ve had no difficulty showcasing Israeli film,” Stein says, alluding to that country’s burgeoning cinema scene. “We look through the eyes of contemporary Israeli filmmakers at Israel as a pluralistic democracy, an ongoing laboratory of cultural and sexual diversity. It’s a wonderful tribute to the state of Israel.”

Asked to pick a few titles that really thrill them this year, both Stein and Fishman gladly name names.

Stein is excited about “Tehilim,” an Israeli drama about a religious family thrown into chaos when the father disappears one day without a trace. He’s also pleased to present two Israeli TV series, both in full: the daring sitcom “Arab Labor,” which ridicules both Jews and Arabs; and the original “In Treatment,” the springboard for the recent HBO series.

Fishman looks forward to the festival’s tribute to Israel’s Barak and Tomer Heymann, brothers and documentary filmmakers whose work has been often featured in the festival. They will be in town for screenings of several of their films, such as “Bridge Over the Wadi” and “Dancing Alfonso” (about Israel’s premiere dance company, Batsheva).

Stein says he’d love to have a future film festival program devoted to Broadway’s Steven Sondheim, or maybe one featuring films of Jews performing in vaudeville. Fishman wouldn’t mind a program of films about Jewish gangsters, or a series about golems, dybbuks and other Jewish spooks.

It all could happen at a Jewish film festival near you. As Stein says, “It’s a question of bandwidth.”

Meanwhile, it’s just about showtime for the 28th annual S.F. Jewish Film Festival.

Says Stein: “Every time we do the fest it’s this kaleidoscope where the shapes are different, but always the same critical prisms and elements. There’s something akin from festival to festival, Jew to Jew, but the lens is constantly shifting.”

Cinema simcha

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.