S.F. Jewish Film Festival tilts east, sets record

Executive director says decision to show films on Friday nights  was ‘successful’

With more films showing in more East Bay theaters than ever before, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival set an attendance record this year with 36,000 attendees, a 20 percent increase over last year, according to festival officials.

The 33rd annual festival wrapped up its 19-day run on Aug. 12 when the slow-paced Israeli drama “The Cutoff Man” came to an end shortly after 10 p.m. at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland. Minutes earlier, the German-Israeli drama “Closed Season” ended at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.


Patrons line up at the Castro Theatre on July 30 for a showing of “The Attack.”

“Each year a few people say, ‘This was the best festival ever,’ but this year it felt even more so,” said Jay Rosenblatt, the festival’s program director. “Countless people said that to me.”


And many of them were saying it in the East Bay.

Of the festival’s 140 screenings this year, 50 took place at four theaters in the East Bay: the California Theatre in Berkeley and the Piedmont, the New Parkway Theater and the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.

Elsewhere, there were 48 screenings in San Francisco, 29 in Palo Alto and 13 in San Rafael.

Lexi Leban, the festival’s executive director, called the East Bay response “amazing,” pointing to a sellout crowd for the festival’s one film at the Parkway, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” and big crowds for the festival’s first foray to the Grand Lake.

“Audiences came out in droves for the Grand Lake Theater,” Leban said Aug. 12, a day after the festival’s three-day run in the refurbished 87-year-old showplace ended. “That surprised us. You open up at a new venue, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen … I think people really wanted to come to their hometown theater.”

Leban also pointed to a sizeable Jewish population in Oakland as well as the city’s burgeoning art and filmmaker community for the good response.

“The Jewish community in the East Bay is part of the larger cultural community in Oakland,” she said. “So we’re connecting and developing bridges with other communities and cultures.”

Overall, there were eight sold-out screenings this year, including two films that sold out twice: the documentary “American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco” (at the Castro in San Francisco and the California in Berkeley), and the French ensemble piece “Rue Mandar” (at the CineArts Palo Alto and the Smith Rafael in San Rafael). “The Zigzag Kid” did not sell out opening night in the 1,400-seat Castro Theatre, but it did sell out the 350-seat Smith Rafael on closing night.

In addition to topping last year’s attendance of 30,000, festival officials said box office revenues were up 21 percent over 2012. However, there were 140 screenings this year, compared with 125 last year. The abundance of screenings and events, at 12 venues, did make things tough on the staff, Leban noted.

“I think the staff is exhausted, and had we not done so well at the box office, I think they would have been upset with me,” she said. “But people are really celebratory about things because it did pan out really well.”

The festival, which began July 25 at the Castro, featured films from 17 countries and welcomed more than 60 filmmakers, artists, scholars and guest musicians from around the world.

One of them was filmmaker Alan Berliner, who was honored with the Freedom of Expression Award on July 29 at the Castro, preceding a showing of his latest film, “First Cousin Once Removed,” a complex essay about a relative struggling with Alzheimer’s.

Other highlights included a screening of “Hannah Arendt” at the Castro, followed by a discussion with scholar Ron Feldman at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav that drew 80 people; a live dub/reggae show after a screening of “Awake Zion” at the Grand Lake; and a concert exploring Amy Winehouse’s music following the film “Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle” at the Castro.

Festival organizers were pleased that sales of young adult passes, which offer a steep discount to anyone under 35, rose 72 percent over last year.

One big change in the festival this year was the decision to show films after sunset on Friday night.

In recent years, a few special screenings were held on the night of Shabbat, such as a program of short films shown on the side of a building last year during Oakland’s Art Murmur. But this year, 29 screenings occurred after sunset on Friday and before sundown on Saturday.

People line up for one of the 31 festival screenings over seven days at the California Theatre in Berkeley. photos/kai shuman

“We definitely did our due diligence on that,” Leban said. “We talked to a lot of leaders in the community and we got a lot of opinions. And our board contemplated it long and hard.

“Our feeling was that it’s great to provide edifying and Jewish things to do on a Friday night,” she added. “In our efforts to reach the broadest and widest possible audiences, we made the decision to try this out, and I think it was really successful.”

Leban said one Friday schedule, at the Castro on July 26, featured films that, while not overtly Jewish, embraced the Jewish values of tikkun olam — people trying to make a difference in the world.

“We also made the effort to repeat the films at other venues so people who celebrate Shabbat could see them on another day,” Leban said. “Also, with our ‘best of the fest’ year-round programming, if people didn’t catch a movie that was shown on Shabbat, they can possibly catch it at some point during the year.”

Leban said she had zero negative feedback on the Shabbat screenings, although she did receive one email asking her to explain the decision.

“Maybe all of the pre-festival conversations [with community leaders and the board] were helpful,” she said.

J. intern Arno Rosenfeld contributed to this report.


Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.