Israel in the spotlight at Silicon Valley Jewish film fest

Looking for a Jewish hero? They’re easy to find at this year’s Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, which is featuring a number of them in its cinematic lineup.

From the first Israeli astronaut in space to the leader of the raid on Entebbe, from a newspaper editor confronting child predators in the Orthodox community to an Orthodox lawyer fighting to free a condemned woman from death row, the festival offers films about heroes from the Jewish world. And much more.

For this 21st annual festival, which runs from Oct. 20 to Nov. 18, organizers have booked films from the United States, France, Germany, Holland, Poland, the Czech Republic and, of course, Israel, which accounts for nearly half of this year’s offerings — 23 films in all. There are three venues: the Camera 7 in Campbell, Camera 12 in San Jose, and the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

Among the highlights is the opening-night Bay Area premiere of “An Article of Hope,” a documentary about the life and death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished in 2003 with six others aboard the space shuttle Columbia. (See story below.) His widow, Rona Ramon, will attend the screening and speak afterward. Joining her will be director Dan Cohen.

Also making its local premiere is “Yossi,” the sequel to director Eytan Fox’s 2002 Israeli hit “Yossi & Jagger,” about a closeted gay Israel Defense Forces soldier and his struggle to come out. This latest offering follows up on the story, with Yossi now a physician in Tel Aviv, but still closeted.

Tzvia Shelef

Other worthy titles include “The Flat,” a documentary about a Holocaust survivor concealing her friendship with a high Nazi official before, during and after the war; the gritty family drama “Mabul” (The Flood); and the feature “Sonny Boy,” about a mixed-race couple in the Netherlands who shelter Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Additional films from Israel include “My Australia,” about a single mother who moves her family from Poland to Israel after she discovers her young son has joined an anti-Semitic gang, and “Hitler’s Children,” a documentary about the offspring of various high Nazi officials, all trying to reconcile familial bonds with the atrocious acts committed by their forebears (Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Ze’evi will be present at the screening).

Why so many Israeli films? It’s not only because there are so many good ones coming from the Jewish state. It also reflects the personal taste of the festival’s new executive director, native Israeli Tzvia Shelef.

“Standing Silent”

“We have an extraordinary film industry over there,” she says. “I want to bring this to people.”

On the U.S. front, a powerful entry is “Standing Silent,” which profiles Phil Jacobs, the Baltimore Jewish Times editor who published a series of exposés involving sexual abuse of children in the religious community (filmmaker Scott Rosenfelt will speak following the film).

There is also a little local flavor with “Crime After Crime,” a documentary about an Orthodox Jewish lawyer from Berkeley who labors to free an African-American woman on death row, sentenced for murdering the husband who abused her for years. Attorney Joshua Safran and local filmmaker Yoav Potash will be present at the screening.

Berkeley-based Veretski Pass will play following the screening of “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” the closing-night film.

“My Australia”

Shelef is excited about the festival lineup not just as a movie fan. She’s also a film professional.

Living in Sunnyvale for the past seven years with her husband, Reuven, and their two children, Shelef, 40, has served as an assistant director and producer of many Israeli films and TV shows over the years — including producing 600 television commercials for the Israeli branch of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi.

She continued her TV production career in the Bay Area. Among her credits: Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” for which she helped bring in Schindler survivors from around the world for the final scene. She also produced shows for KQED.

When Shelef took the film festival job a year ago, she had been a longtime fan of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and was once asked to join its board.

“Crime After Crime”

She preferred to stay closer to home and to her local festival.

“San Francisco has an amazing festival,” she says. “I like their programming a lot, but for me I was missing more Israeli films there. It’s a different kind of community. We don’t have as many Israelis in the city as we do in the Peninsula.”

Shelef, her volunteer staff and selection committee went for breadth not only nationally but generationally. This year, the festival for the first time will have screenings geared for teens and young kids.

Those include three episodes of “Shalom Sesame,” Israel’s version of “Sesame Street,” featuring cameos from Christina Applegate and singer Matisyahu. It’s safe to say one hasn’t lived until one watches Elmo attempt to learn Hebrew.

Sonny Boy”

The teen-oriented feature “Foreign Letters” tells the story of a 12-year-old Israeli girl trying to build a new life in America.

Shelef sees her goal as growing the festival. That includes expanding year-round screenings, adding more films to the lineup and maybe increasing the staff. Currently, Shelef is the only paid employee.

Her small army of lay leaders and volunteers pulls off the festival year after year. Included in that army this year is her 11-year-old daughter Shir, who will volunteer as ticket-taker at some screenings.

“I’m hoping to get the younger crowd involved,” Shelef says, “and build a bigger community for the next generation. I want this tradition to stay.”


Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, Oct. 20-Nov. 18 at Camera 7 Campbell, Camera 12 San Jose and Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. www.svjff.org


For stories on two films in the festival, click the links below:

Israeli astronaut’s widow strives to carry on his legacy

‘Follow’ tracks Israeli hero’s gripping journey to Entebbe


cover illustration/cathleen maclearie