A filmmaker who helps other women tell their truths

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Why are there so many female Jewish documentary filmmakers? It’s not a terribly obvious question, but it provokes a laugh from New York Jewish documentary filmmaker Judith Helfand.

“Historically, it’s been easier to break into the documentary world than it has been to break into the narrative world — for all women,” she replies with a slight wisp of impatience.

After all, this is the landscape Helfand navigates every day as a producer, director and co-founder and creative director of Chicken & Egg Pictures, whose raison d’être is to provide mentorships and grants to female nonfiction filmmakers of diverse backgrounds.

The impressive list of documentaries the organization has backed includes the high profile, Jewish-infused “Regarding Susan Sontag,” “Watchers of the Sky” (now streaming on Netflix), “Kings Point” (Oscar-nominated) and “Budrus.”

Judith Helfand

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival honors Helfand with a July 31 revival of her 2002 documentary “Blue Vinyl” at the Castro and an onstage conversation Aug. 1 at the California in Berkeley.

After two decades in the forefront of personal filmmaking, with all the obstacles, resistance and put-downs that go with a woman speaking in the first person, Helfand ranks as one of the bravest and most candid directors around.

“Storytelling and making sense of the world through metaphor and character, and being able to fold stories up and use them as a prism, a lens, a mirror, a torch — I like to think that’s a very Jewish response to crisis, to injustice, to inequity,” Helfand declares.

“Blue Vinyl” began with her parents’ decision to re-side their house, launching the filmmaker on a nationwide exploration of the health and environmental costs of polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs).

It was a natural follow-up to “A Healthy Baby Girl,” her Peabody Award–winning 1996 video diary. That film opens with Helfand’s diagnosis at 25 with cervical cancer and evolves into a damning exposé of the marketing of the synthetic hormone DES in the 1960s.

“I credit this Jewish film festival and [then-co-director] Janis Plotkin with helping me frame ‘A Healthy Baby Girl’ and ‘Blue Vinyl’ as Jewish environmental movies,” Helfand, 51, says in a phone interview.

The SFJFF “helped me enlarge the definition of what is a Jewish movie,” she recalls. “It helped me position my work, and the kind of filmmaking I wanted to do, as Jewish filmmaking.”

Helfand has just embarked on a one-year leave of absence from Chicken & Egg, in part to continue her masterful practice of intimate, personal documentary. She envisions a sequel of sorts to “A Healthy Baby Girl” that encompasses the death of Helfand’s mother in 2013 and the adoption of her own healthy baby girl the following year.

The first order of business, though, is finishing “Cooked,” based on sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s 2002 book “Heatwave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” The documentary follows the book’s lead in going beyond the headlines to get at the root causes of the July 1995 deaths of hundreds of mostly poor, elderly and black people.

“We do live in a place where it’s survival by ZIP code and survival by health care,” Helfand asserts. “We’re creating an underclass of people who are going to die earlier than on another side of town, a ‘disaster in slow motion’ of acute economic, health care and infrastructure disparity.”

“Cooked” might sound like a less Jewish film, but Helfand views inequality and climate change as Jewish issues.

“My rabbi on the Upper West Side is talking about these ideas, and the pope is talking about these ideas,” she says. “In that context, I can say I gave at the office — or in the cutting room or at the laptop.”

Attendees at her Aug. 1 conversation will get a taste of her projects, including “Love and Stuff,” a 10-minute short she produced for the New York Times site. The very Jewish film, which deals with loss following her mother’s death, can be viewed at www.tinyurl.com/nytimes-helfand.

“Blue Vinyl,” 2:30 p.m. July 31 at the Castro in S.F. Judith Helfand in conversation, 2:10 p.m. Aug. 1 at the California in Berkeley. Part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

S.F. Jewish Film Festival

Through Aug. 9

• Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco

• CinéArts@Palo Alto Square, 3000 El Camino Real, Palo Alto

• California Theatre, 2113 Kittredge St., Berkeley

• Lakeside Theater, Kaiser Center, 300 Lakeside Drive, Oakland

• Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael


Tickets and information: www.sfjff.org

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.