The reel deal: New S.F. Jewish film fest director is ready to roll

For a recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival staff meeting, Lexi Leban came bearing gifts, a platter of luscious pastries from Arizmendi Bakery.

With the festival about four months away, staffers had earned the treats. On this day Leban, the new executive director, wanted to recognize their efforts designing festival materials. First drafts, at least.

Since taking the helm from Peter Stein in November, Leban has been feathering her nest at the festival’s SoMa headquarters. A little new paint here, a little feng shui there, and a lot of enthusiasm.

“I love it,” Leban says of her new job. “I spent the first months meeting with as many people in the community as I could. Everyone has an opinion about the festival — not a surprise — but I am impressed by how thoughtful the input has been.”

Festival board president Dana Doron reports that Leban’s focus on community outreach has been productive. “We have such a diverse audience and support base,” Doron says. “She’s been able to connect, and get people excited about the festival.”

Arguably the Bay Area Jewish community’s best-known arts event, the film festival is also said to be the most important Jewish holiday of the year for many, especially the unaffiliated.

A filmmaker and educator who attended her first S.F. Jewish Film Festival in 1989, Leban, 46, understands the festival’s role in sparking dialogue, some of it heated.

“I’m one of those people who would bring a cushion, food, and park myself in the seats for the duration,” she recalls of festivals past. “My education on Israeli film came largely through [the festival].”

She also understands how the event, now in its 32nd year, must occasionally walk the line between presenting challenging films and offending some audiences. But she is determined to keep the festival  relevant.

“Everybody on staff is very interested in new ideas and new energy,” Leban says. “So we’ve been brainstorming ways of rebooting and re-envisioning the mission of the film festival. We’ve been excited to build on the strengths of the past and integrate these new ideas.”

Among them are expanding the festival’s year-round presence with more screenings, as well as adding more content to the website (the page streaming short films recently surpassed 1.3 million hits).

Leban “understands the festival’s potential is so large,” says David Katznelson, director of outreach and engagement for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, a festival funder. “She will be more strategic in the way she does programming throughout the year to provide more impact in the community.”

In search of films to screen at this summer’s festival, which runs July 19 to Aug. 6, Leban and festival program director Jay Rosenblatt took a trip in February to the Berlin International Film Festival, one of the world’s largest cinema marketplaces.

Talk about kids in a candy shop.

“We saw five or six films per day, starting at 9 in the morning,” Leban says. “We also gathered DVD screeners to bring back with us.”

She and Rosenblatt also discovered many good candidates for the festival lineup. “There were really good films from Israel, which had a great year, having had ‘Footnote,’ ” she says, referring to the recent best foreign film Oscar nominee. “I also met with Israeli film people, including the head of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the Haifa Film Festival and distributors.”

They will meet again. This fall, Leban will travel to Israel for the first time, to attend the Haifa festival and cement ties with the Israeli film community. Organizing the trip is Donny Inbar, former cultural attaché with the Consulate General of Israel and now associate director for arts and culture at the Israel Center, a JCF program in San Francisco.

He’s known Leban only a short time, but he’s already a fan.

“She is a really charming and enthusiastic person who brings a lot of new things to the position,” Inbar says, “things we as cultural programmers are eager to get: new media, new approaches to younger generations, online stuff. She has a lot of knowledge, experience and insight.”

Lexi Leban photo/cathleen maclearie

Inbar says Leban offers a fresh start for a festival still feeling after-effects from the controversial 2009 screening of the documentary “Rachel” and subsequent outcry in and around the Jewish community.

Rachel Corrie was an American student killed in 2003 while protesting Israeli military bulldozers in Gaza. Critics claimed both the film and the post-screening discussion, which featured Corrie’s mother, were biased against Israel.

That episode sparked one of the most contentious periods in recent Bay Area Jewish history, opening the festival and its funders to harsh criticism from some pro-Israel quarters.

Not only did the festival lose donors and board members in the wake of the incident, the federation later issued grantee guidelines on the limits of criticism of Israel.

Former director Stein signed on to the guidelines, though he expressed deep reservations, fearing a possible “chilling effect” on arts organizations.

“Everybody wants to put closure to that chapter,” says Leban, who plans not to “repeat the mistakes of the past. The programming around the films and communication around controversial films can be framed in the future to prevent the kind of problems we had with the ‘Rachel’ screening.”

Festival supporters understand there is a line between free expression and going too far.

“I definitely believe in freedom of the arts,” Inbar says. “The thing is, how far do you stretch it or focus on things that are extreme? When you totally rely on support from the established community, you have to have some sort of responsibility to that. If you want to be totally independent and get your funding elsewhere, you’re free to do anything.”

Leban says the festival does not “take a political position. We’re about showing films from a range of perspectives and engaging people in civil discourse around the films we show. We’ll always show films that are edgy and controversial, and we’re really committed to being a place where we can have civil dialogue about those films.”

Born in New York City, Leban grew up in what she calls “a very secular Jewish household. My parents did social justice Judaism, and were involved in causes.”

So much so, they did not take their daughter to see fun family fare at the local cineplex. Instead, she remembers viewing social action documentaries such as “Harlan County, U.SA,” the 1976 Oscar-winning film about hardscrabble Kentucky coal miners.

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and then moved to San Francisco in 1989 because “being a young, gay person, I followed that same pilgrimage that many people make.”

After earning an MFA in cinema from San Francisco State University, Leban jumped into filmmaking and teaching.

Lexi Leban with Jay Rosenblatt, program director of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival, at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

She produced and directed films on women’s rights and LGBT issues. But her proudest achievement as a filmmaker is “Girl Trouble,” a documentary about teen girls caught up in the juvenile justice system. Released in 2004, it took four years to make, as she followed her three protagonists over time.

“Girl Trouble” aired nationally on the PBS series “Independent Lens” and was named best Bay Area documentary at the 2004 San Francisco International Film Festival. It also earned the endorsement of the National Juvenile Justice Network and garnered a Prevention for a Safer Society Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“It was the most wonderful experience of my life to date,” Leban says of the making of the film, which she co-produced with Lidia Szajko. “The film is now being used in the way we hoped: to change policy and programming around young women’s experiences.”

Leban also served as academic director of the digital filmmaking and video production program at the Art Institute of California–San Francisco. There she created the bachelor’s program, building an HDTV production studio and designing curriculum in new media production and distribution.

For the past eight years, she also has worked in Web operations and promotions for New Day Films, a filmmaker-run educational distribution company. Prior film festival experience includes stints with the Mill Valley Film Festival and San Francisco International Film Festival.

Her Jewish path was a bit more circuitous. Attending the S.F. Jewish Film Festival led her to seek out “an education I wasn’t given growing up.” She went on to serve as a docent at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Leban holds her daughter, Sóla, in 2008.

The festival provided a window onto a wider Jewish world than she ever knew existed.

“For years, I have come to the festival and marveled at how there is no one way to be Jewish,” Leban says. “Talking to audience members, I’ve seen this idea enable many of us, myself included, to engage as Jews in all aspects of our lives. It’s an honor to have this opportunity to immerse myself in our Jewish communities.”

She may be having fun, but it’s not easy running an arts nonprofit in times of economic uncertainty.

Leban says the festival cannot make it into the black on ticket sales alone. Fundraising is a key part of her job, and to keep the festival thriving, she says, “It takes a village.”

Moreover, competition for films has grown fiercer over the years. Not only does Leban’s festival compete with two similar local events — the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, which wraps up this weekend, and the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival in the fall — but distributors often are less likely to give festivals first crack at films bound for commercial release.

Though her job can be all-consuming, Leban hasn’t left filmmaking behind. For several years, she’s been working on a new documentary, “By the Power Vested in Me,” chronicling the struggle for marriage equality in California. It’s a story for which the final chapter has not yet been written.

The topic matters to her. Leban and her partner, Helga Sigvaldadóttir, married at San Francisco City Hall in 2004, during the first wave of same-sex marriages in the city (all later annulled by the state), and they were one of the 18,000 couples legally married in 2008 before the passage of Proposition 8 slammed the door on more nuptials.

They have a 6-year-old daughter, Sóla. As a parent, Leban thinks the festival provides important learning opportunities for her daughter and countless other Jews in the Bay Area.

“I ask myself how will I impart Jewish knowledge and culture to my daughter,” she says. “I’m interested in her having a space to engage with Jewish art and culture in film. I see the education that takes place at film festival as very important to Bay Area Jewish culture.”

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.