SF Jewish film festival wraps up Year 35

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival concluded its 35th annual run on Aug. 9 with organizers looking onward and upward.

Lexi Leban, the festival’s executive director, noted that more than 50 filmmakers attended screenings and that 57 of the festival’s 70 films were premieres — mostly Bay Area or West Coast premieres, but also a handful of world and North America premieres.


“Dough” director John Goldschmidt (front) and actor Jerome Holder on opening night July 23 photo/sfjff-barak shrama

The festival had an 11-day run at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, a six-day run at the CinéArts in Palo Alto and a seven-day run at the California Theatre in Berkeley before winding up with three-day runs at the Smith Rafael Film Center in Palo Alto and the Lakeside Theater in Oakland.


The Lakeside? The 375-seat theater is a gorgeous facility located on the second floor of the 28-story Kaiser Center near Lake Merritt, but most Oaklanders, let alone people from other Bay Area cities, have never heard it. Even one director said he had difficulty locating it using Google.

After showing films at Oakland’s historic Grand Lake Theater in 2013 and 2014, and at the Piedmont Theater in 2012 and 2013, Leban said festival planners had to scramble this year when informed the Grand Lake was unavailable due to a packed lineup of summer blockbusters.

Still, many festivalgoers preferred the Kaiser Center’s free parking and proximity to BART, Leban said.


Castro Theatre in San Francisco photos/sfjff-barak shrama

“The Oakland opening more than sold out,” Leban said of the Aug. 7 showing of “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” on Shabbat. She said about 3,000 people in total attended the Lakeside run of 15 screenings. “I think once people are used the new location, as we continue using it, it’ll get easier year to year.”


That being said, Leban said she doesn’t know if the festival will return to the Lakeside next year.

While Leban and festival staff wouldn’t disclose the numbers of sellouts, they did say 12 films either sold out or received standing ovations. Opening night at the Castro saw a turnout of 1,200 for the Northern California premiere of the British drama-comedy “Dough,” and the Freedom of Expression award event, with Academy Award–winning actress and director Lee Grant, drew a crowd of 700.

The sale of Palo Alto passes went up 60 percent this year, Leban said, as more directors attended screenings at the CinéArts than in previous years.

With a total audience of more than 35,000, according to festival organizers, this year’s SFJFF — known as the first and largest Jewish film festival in the world — came in slightly behind the reported 38,631 who attended the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival earlier this year.

But Leban is unfazed, emphasizing the importance of quality over quantity in terms of both attendance and selection of films.

“We’re the most prestigious film festival in the world,” Leban stated. “We’ve always been the launch pad for filmmakers working with Jewish themes.”

Program director Jay Rosenblatt said one of the festival’s big hits was “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.” The biopic, which recounted the life of the famous art collector and society figure, drew a sellout crowd at the Castro on July 26, leading organizers to hurriedly add an Aug. 7 screening in San Rafael; it also sold out at the Lakeside on Aug. 7.


Mix Master Mike at a July 30 post-film event

“We knew it was a good film, but we didn’t know it would hit a nerve — in a good way,” Rosenblatt said. “She was quite a character, and I think people didn’t realize the extent of that.”


Rosenblatt said the Guggenheim film was part of the festival’s showcasing of films about women and directed by women. A majority of the “Big Night” events featured films directed by women and panels featuring a strong representation of women, such as the July 31 “Take Action Day” at the Castro.

“Women in the director’s chair is a really important thing to highlight now,” Leban said, “because even though women have made so many gains, they’re still representing such a small part of [the film industry].”

This year’s festival was held in conjunction with the launch of the newly named Jewish Film Institute, which will provide year-round programming. The annual summer film festival will be its flagship offering, but one of the new highlights is JFI On Demand, an online streaming service offering a selection of festival films. Right now, 35 films are available for rent or purchase, but Leban said the larger goal is to upload a “large percentage” of the 1,600 films the festival has screened over the years. There are also many shorts at JewishFilmInstitute.org that can be watched for free.

Leban said she is not worried about cannibalizing festival attendance — which hit a record 36,000 in 2013 — by making Jewish-themed, independent films available online.

“People are consuming media lots of different ways,” she said. “We’ve seen that even with the phenomenon of binge-watching in your living room all these HBO and Netflix series, people still really crave live conversation, interaction, social engagement, drinking, eating and watching films together.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.