S.F. Jewish film fest brings all corners of world to Bay Area

You’ve seen the film. Now go save the world.

That’s the message behind “Take Action,” one of several programming categories in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which begins its 18-day run on Thursday, July 24.

The 34th annual edition of the festival includes 70 films from 18 countries, including seven world premieres. Of course, the San Francisco moniker in the festival’s name is a bit of a misnomer.

Screenings will take place in eight venues all over the Bay Area, from the Berkeley Rep and Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater to San Rafael’s Smith Rafael Film Center, Palo Alto’s CinéArts and the festival’s epicenter, the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

As always, the festival divides its cinematic fare into themes and categories. For example, a spotlight on comedy includes a film about Army vets who learn the art of standup (“Comedy Warriors”) and a salute to revered Jewish comedian David Steinberg (“Quality Balls”).

The category “Singular Vision” features films from iconoclastic directors. The nine films grouped in the “Borders” category explore the significance of boundaries, both geographical and psychological.

The nine “Take Action” films cover a range of social issues, from reproductive rights (“Vessel”) to hunger (“The Starfish Throwers”) to minority rights in Israel (“Transit”). Some, such as the documentary “Beginning with the End” (about hospice care), have no direct Jewish theme, but their tikkun olam spirit means the movies have a place at the festival.

“There is a lot of thinking in the filmmaking community about how films can impact the world,” says festival executive director Lexi Leban. “What people can do after watching a film, either personal change or taking action, we think is very compatible with the Jewish value of healing the world.”

That’s why festival organizers invited representatives from local social justice nonprofits, such as Hazon Bay Area, Hospice by the Bay and the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, to set up tables in the Castro Theatre lobby during “Take Action Day,” a July 25 marathon of documentaries.

Too busy to look up from the iPhone? The SFJFF mobile app has a function that connects audiences with the social justice campaigns aligned with the ones described in the “Take Action” films.

As for the festival in general, some improvements have been made this year.

The new venue for the opening-night party on July 24 is the Contemporary Jewish Museum, following a screening at the Castro. After analyzing last year’s 21 percent box office increase, organizers decided to extend the Castro Theatre run to 11 days and include a second weekend of screenings. And closing night will take place on Aug. 10, a Sunday, and not midweek as in years past.

Following opening night’s much-anticipated Israeli thriller “The Green Prince,” the festival’s two centerpiece films are “Watchers of the Sky” (a documentary about Polish Jewish activist Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide) and “Run Boy Run,” a Holocaust tale told from the point of view of a child. The Castro run ends on Aug. 3 with “Little White Lie,” an American documentary about Judaism, race and identity. A reception follows.

The 2014 Freedom of Expression Award winner is nonagenarian actor-singer Theodore Bikel. He’ll attend the Castro screening of “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem” and accept his award on July 31.

This year’s festival gets underway as the Jewish world deals with the escalating violence in Israel and Gaza. Troubled times have come back to a troubled region, and half a world away, Leban wonders how it may affect festivalgoers. A few films look at the conditions in Israel from different points of view, for instance the documentary “Holy Land,” which focuses on a handful of Israelis and Palestinians who live on the West Bank.

“In challenging times like these, many people come to the festival to learn more about filmmakers’ perspective on the Middle East,” she says. “I’m looking forward to having everyone come together as a community, look at the work, explore, talk, question and learn.”

This is Leban’s third festival since taking the directorship, which she calls a dream job.

“I’m loving it,” she says. “The organization is growing and changing. We are doing much more year-round. Next year is our 35th year, and at 35 you’re either moving back in with your parents or you’re hitting your stride. I think we’re hitting our stride.”

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs from July 24 to Aug. 10 at eight Bay Area locations. For ticket and program information, visit www.sfjff.org.


on the cover

photo illustration/cathleen maclearie

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival



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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.