Celluloid secrets: Contra Costa film fest brings hidden struggles to big screen

Long before he joined the selection committee of the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival, a young Lee Goldin was remaking “King Kong” — using the family camcorder, a Ghostbusters firehouse set and a stuffed monkey doll. Though it won no Palme d’Or, the experience put Goldin, now 24, on course for a career in the arts.

Now the Oakland-based actor-director has put his love of cinema to good use in serving the film festival. Together with 23 colleagues, Goldin helped choose a lineup of films that is the biggest in the festival’s history.

The 14th annual Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival kicks off Feb. 28 and runs through March 6 at various locations across the county. It overlaps with its sister festival, the Tri-Valley/Tri-City Jewish Film Series, running March 1 and 5 in Livermore.

“I am almost overwhelmed at the incredible range of topics, styles and places [the films] came from,” Goldin says. “It truly is an international film festival.”

Scanning the films’ countries of origin, it’s hard to argue with him. Nearly 30 documentaries, features and short films from Israel, France, Germany, Hungary, Tunisia, Spain, Argentina and the United States made the cut this year.

In the festival brochure, chairwoman Pearl Furman says a dominant theme runs through the lineup: “Hidden stories where both the heroes and/or their adversaries confront secrets in their past.”

Case in point, the festival’s opening night features, “The Secrets” from France and “Shiva (The Seven Days)” from Israel. The former is a multigenerational family drama set in France, the latter a gripping psychological drama set in Israel after the first Gulf War.

“Shiva” is just one of several offerings from the burgeoning Israeli cinema scene. Other Israeli films on the festival marquee include the spy thriller “The Debt,” the hit Israeli TV sitcom “Srugim” and documentaries such as the 1962 classic about the early days of modern Israel, “Heads or Tails.”

Goldin’s favorite of the Israeli entries is “Lemon Tree,” a controversial story about a Palestinian

woman’s lemon grove that is overrun by Israeli soldiers, and her fight for justice.

“It’s a small story that serves as an allegory for social and political struggles,” Goldin says. “It will hit a nerve and I hope so. The debate needs to be open.”

Goldin is a longtime fan of Israeli cinema, calling it “the conscience of the Israeli state.”

“The state needs to make these bold, drastic military decisions to bolster political support and maintain safety. But we can’t sacrifice our souls, so we have to have movies to serve as our conscience.”

The festival has plenty of fun fare. The American documentary “The First Basket” recounts the intertwined histories of Jews and professional basketball. “The Powder and the Glory” tells the tale of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, the two Jewish women who invented the cosmetics industry.

Another of Goldin’s top picks is “Constantine’s Sword,” a 2008 British documentary about the Catholic Church’s checkered history when it comes to religious tolerance, especially during the Holocaust. On the other end of the spectrum –– way on the other end –– is “Circumcise Me!,” an American documentary about a comedian who converted to Judaism three times (and underwent a bris each time).

“A lot of the films are about struggles,” Goldin adds, “like ‘Good’ with Viggo Mortensen. That’s an extreme example, about a guy struggling with his relationship to the Nazi Party. Internal conflict always shapes us.”

Growing up in Walnut Creek, Goldin was steeped in Jewish life. His father served as president of Congregation B’nai Tikvah. His sister currently is training to become a cantor.

He says Jewish culture, history and love of Israel influenced every aspect of his life, including his aesthetics. “It informs my taste in films,” he says. “I have a reverence for Jewish culture but a desire to challenge the most deeply held doctrines of our tradition.”

As a teen he was selected to participate in documentary filmmaker Sam Ball’s New Jewish Filmmaker Project (sponsored by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival). He later studied theater at U.C. Santa Cruz, writing and directing plays. He now teaches theater for Art Reach, a program of Walnut Creek’s Civic Arts Education program, which takes the arts into public schools. 

He’s also the youngest member of the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival committee. But nobody made him sit at the kids’ table.

“We’re all very loud,” he says of his colleagues. “We’re all smart and opinionated. It takes a while to make decisions. But the conflicts disappear when we dim the lights and screen the films.”

As much time and toil as he’s put in so far, Goldin plans to be in the theater seats, bag of popcorn in hand, once the festival begins.

“The real excitement of the film festival is not just picking the films,” he says, “but being there and watching people watch the movies.”

The 14th annual Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival runs Feb. 28 through March 6. The Tri-Valley/Tri-City Jewish Film Series runs March 1 and 5 in Livermore. For a complete listing of films, screening times and locations, and ticket prices, go to www.eastbayjewishfilm.org, or call (510) 839-2900 ext. 256.

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.