S.F. Jewish Film Festival announces 2013 lineup

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While attending the Haifa Film Festival last fall, Lexi Leban and Jay Rosenblatt experienced something they don’t often get: star treatment.

The executive director and program director, respectively, of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival were in Israel seeking films for the 2013 lineup. During their quest, Israeli filmmakers lined up to meet them, several hoping to get their work featured in San Francisco.

No surprise, as the SFJFF is the oldest and largest Jewish film festival in the world. The 33rd annual festival opens with “The Zigzag Kid” on July 25 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. With eight venues across the region — three of them new — and 74 films from 17 countries, the three-week festival is significantly larger than last year’s.

Opening-night film “The Zigzag Kid” chronicles the adventures of Nono, the son of a famous detective. photo/courtesy bos bros and n279 entertainment

And yes, a number of Israeli films made the cut. “We met with everybody in the film industry,” Leban says. “A lot of filmmakers have a history with the festival, so it was also about reconnecting with long-term alums.”

As often happens, Leban and Rosenblatt found that certain categories of films emerged out of the lineup. This year, those categories include films about growing up, music, World War II, New York City and Jewish icons — from Nazi-hunter Hannah Arendt to the Jewish Elvis himself, Neil Diamond.

The opening-night film, a Dutch comedy based on a novella by popular Israeli author David Grossman, is about a bar mitzvah boy with a vivid imagination.

Closing night at the Castro on Aug. 1 features “Rue Mandar,” a new French film that tells the story of a somewhat dysfunctional Sephardic family in Paris. The closing night for the entire festival is Aug. 12.

In between are scores of films, Q&As with filmmakers, panel discussions and a few parties organizers hope the Bay Area Jewish community will enjoy.

The festival continues with screenings at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, CinéArts at Palo Alto Square, the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, the California Theater in Berkeley (new), and the Piedmont Theater, the Grand Lake Theater (new) and New Parkway Theater (new) in Oakland.

Leban hopes audiences will check out “The Attack,” this year’s centerpiece film. Set in Israel and the Palestinian territories and directed by Lebanese-born Muslim Ziad Doueiri (who will be at the S.F. screening with actor Ali Suliman), it tells the story of an accomplished Palestinian doctor who learns to his horror that his wife assisted a suicide bomber. The film is being widely banned in Lebanon and other Middle East countries because it was partially shot in Israel and Doueiri used some Israeli actors and crew.

Also somewhat controversial is “Aftermath,” a Polish thriller that explores the idea that some Poles were indifferent, if not complicit, regarding the fate of Jews during the Holocaust.

Also in the lineup: the world premiere of “American Jerusalem,” a history of the Jews in San Francisco, produced locally by Jackie Krentzman, a U.C. Berkeley journalism professor.

Other intriguing titles include “Afternoon Delight,” a comedy from writer-director Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under”) about a desperate Jewish housewife in Los Angeles who meets a stripper, who later moves in.

On the TV front, the festival will present new episodes of “Arab Labor” and “The A Word” (an Israeli show about an autistic boy, which is being adapted for American TV), and will explore the evolution of Israel’s “Prisoners of War,” which morphed into “Homeland.” Creator Gideon Raff will attend.

This year’s Freedom of Expression Award goes to Alan Berliner, a documentary filmmaker often featured in the festival over the years, with films such as “The Family Album” and “Intimate Stranger.” He will be on hand to greet audiences as his latest film, “First Cousin Once Removed,” is screened.

Other special guests include actor-filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, best known as Ray the barista from the HBO hit series “Girls.” Several of his short films will be screened, and Karpovsky himself will appear July 27 at the Castro to talk about his work.

And there will be music, including a rare Amy Winehouse live concert film (recorded before the late songstress made it big); the documentary “Awake Zion,” followed by a live dub/reggae show, and screen musical versions of “Annie” and “The Producers.”

Leban promises the festival will be more family-friendly this year, with such offerings as “The Zigzag Kid” and “Dancing in Jaffa.”

Now in her second full year as festival director, Leban feels confident about this year’s program and the festival itself, which offers year-round programming.

“I feel a little older and a little wiser,” she says. “This year we have a new theme, ‘Life through a Jew(ish) Lens,’ which is about the ever-evolving notion of Jewishness. We’re excited to have a catalog that reflects that.”

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 25-Aug. 12. www.sfjff.org

Click here to see a calendar view of all the films.

Click here to see an alphabetical listing.

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.