The big picture show: 36th S.F. Jewish Film Festival

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival usually doesn’t roll out an Oscar-style red carpet. This year they’re going to need one.

The 36th annual festival, opening on Thursday, July 21, will have plenty of star power, with scheduled in-person appearances by TV legend Norman Lear, standup comedy icon Robert Klein, celebrity chef Michael Solomonov and even the “Son of Spock” (as in Adam Nimoy, son of the late “Star Trek” star Leonard Nimoy).

“We’re hoping all the Trekkies will come out in full regalia,” executive director Lexi Leban said regarding the July 31 screening of “For the Love of Spock,” a documentary by Adam Nimoy that will be making its West Coast premiere.

The film explores a complex father-son relationship, as well as the ways Leonard Nimoy’s Judaism impacted his life and work. It has been selected to close the festival’s 11-day run at the Castro Theatre, and will also screen Aug. 1 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley; Adam Nimoy is slated to attend the Castro screening only.

“Spock” is one of 67 films from 15 countries featured in this year’s festival, which will run through Aug. 7 at the Castro in San Francisco, the CineArts in Palo Alto, the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

The opening night offering is “The Tenth Man,” a touching family comedy from Argentina, filmed in the Buenos Aires Jewish neighborhood Once. “It’s my favorite opening night film since I’ve been here,” said program director Jay Rosenblatt, who has been with the festival since 2009, two years before Leban came aboard. Director Daniel Burman, who has had three previous films in the SFJFF, is scheduled to be in attendance on opening night.

As always, the festival will present an array of films that explore myriad facets of Jewish life, culture, history and politics. And as always, Leban and Rosenblatt — both former filmmakers — have created several themes in which to slot various films.

One of this year’s marquee categories has been tabbed “Televisionaries,” and it will be a salute to Jewish pioneers of television, such as “All in the Family” creator Norman Lear. In conjunction with the July 24 screening of the documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” at the Castro Theatre, Lear will be present to accept this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. The film will also be shown July 25 in Palo Alto and Aug. 7 in San Rafael.

The “Televisionaries” category also includes screenings of episodes of three Israeli shows: “The Writer,” a new series from critically acclaimed Israeli Arab TV writer Sayed Kashua (who created “Arab Labor”); “Shtisel,” a melodrama about a haredi family “that looks like ‘Modern Family’ put on a kippah and went to Jerusalem,” according to the description in the SFJFF program; and “False Flag,” about five ordinary citizens suspected of kidnapping an Iranian official.

“It’s been picked up by Fox,” Leban said of “False Flag.” “So like ‘Homeland,’ it’s the next Israeli hit here.”

“False Flag” writer-creator Amit Cohen is scheduled to be in person at screenings on July 30 in San Francisco and July 31 in Berkeley. Moreover, Kashua, whose popular “Arab Labor” show ran for four seasons in Israel and has been featured previously in the SFJFF, is scheduled to attend screenings on July 31 in San Francisco and Aug. 1 in Berkeley.

Another theme in this year’s festival is “People of the Book,” which will be highlighted by “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman’s directorial debut.  The 98-minute film, in Hebrew with English subtitles, is based on Amos Oz’s bestselling autobiography. It will screen July 23 in San Francisco and Aug. 4 in Berkeley.

Another feature to keep on an eye on is “Natasha,” one of this year’s two centerpiece films. The 93-minute film, in English and Russian with English subtitles, is a provocative drama from Canadian writer and director David Bezmozgis. It’s based on a highly acclaimed 2004 short story by Bezmozgis about a romance between a 16-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant in Toronto and his cousin by marriage, a 14-year-old girl from Moscow with a scandalous past. Bezmozgis is scheduled to appear for screenings on July 26 in San Francisco, July 27 in Palo Alto and July 29 in Berkeley.

The other centerpiece film is “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” which analyzes the impact Klein had on a generation of comics. The film will screen only once, July 25 at the Castro, with Klein, who appeared on “The Tonight Show” and Letterman more than 100 times, and movie critic-turned-director Marshall Fine scheduled to be in attendance.

Though most films in this year’s festival won’t be making their world premieres, one that will be having its first public showing is “Wrestling Jerusalem,” a 93-minute film based on the one-man play from Bay Area actor-playwright Aaron Davidman. In the film, just like in the play, Davidman takes on 17 roles — men and women, Muslim and Jew — to make sense of an impossibly complex problem. Dylan Kussman makes his big-screen directorial debut by using scenes shot in a San Francisco theater, in the desert and in a backstage dressing room.

“It’s not just a recording of a theater piece,” Rosenblatt said. “The direction is seamless.”

Added Leban: “I’m not normally a fan of theatrical plays transformed into cinematic experiences, but there is something visually stunning about it.”

Davidman is scheduled to appear at screenings July 27 in San Francisco, July 28 in Palo Alto and July 31 in Berkeley. The film also will screen Aug. 7 in San Rafael.

Another theme in the festival’s “double chai” anniversary year is one that should spark plenty of discussion: the relationship of Jews to Germany.

“Germans and Jews” addresses the topic head-on, with Holocaust survivors and present-day Germans (Jewish and non-Jewish) unpacking the complexities of history, guilt and reconciliation. The 76-minute film is in English and German with English subtitles.

The documentary “A German Life” also poses some big questions by profiling 104-year-old Brunhilde Pomsel, who served as a secretary for Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and who was present in Hitler’s bunker during his final days. Two of the film’s four directors will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A on July 24 in San Francisco and July 25 in Palo Alto. The film is in German with English subtitles.

Though the culinary arts is not an official theme in this year’s festival, there will be plenty of offerings geared toward people who are interested in food.

“In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” which will play four times, follows noted restaurateur-chef Michael Solomonov (known for his landmark Philadelphia restaurant Zahav) on a trip to his native Israel, where he travels around and asks chefs and other food people to define the Holy Land’s national cuisine. He never gets an all-encompassing answer, but he does enjoy plenty of memorable meals, many prepared on screen.

Solomonov and director Roger Sherman will appear at the 3:50 p.m. July 23 screening at the Castro, and afterward, for those who purchase a special ticket for $90 or $100, there will be a 6:15 p.m. dinner at the restaurant Aatxe at the nearby Swedish American Hall. Diners will enjoy sampler food prepared by local chefs, with the menus inspired by Solomonov’s own Israeli-style menus.

The festival’s other food-related movies are “Hummus! The Movie,” a documentary about the food sweeping across America and its dynamism in the Middle East, and “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream,” a documentary on the largest family-owned matzah factory in the United States.

While Leban and Rosenblatt are excited about many films in this year’s lineup, they are especially looking forward to “Joshy,” a boys-night-out comedy co-starring Thomas Middleditch from TV’s “Silicon Valley,” and “The Settlers,” an unflinching documentary about the Israeli Jews who choose to live in the disputed Palestinian territories.

“It will give people interesting historical context, going up to the present day,” Leban said of the latter film, “with different communities of West Bank settlers and how they articulate their visions: the hilltop extremists, the American fundamentalist Christians who settle there, and all kinds of lost souls looking to this piece of territory to stake their claim.”

Another Leban favorite is “Sand Storm,” an Israeli drama about the Bedouin Arab community’s conflict between tradition and modernity. It was shot in the Negev Desert and stars non-professional actors.

Once again the festival will be hosting a “Take Action Day,” pairing inspiring documentaries with opportunities to help make the world a better place. The July 29 lineup includes films such as “The Freedom to Marry,” highlighting the same-sex marriage battle in the Supreme Court, and “Class Divide,” examining the disconnect between public housing and elite private schools in Manhattan. Panel discussions and a reception follow the screenings.

And in a random act of kindness, thanks to generous donors, festival organizers are offering what they have dubbed “Single Jewish Moms Free Screenings.” Designed for single moms with young children, the screenings on July 23, 24, 30 and 31 at the Castro Theatre (each a different film starting between 10:30 a.m. and noon) will include free childcare at nearby Eureka Valley Arts, as well as free bagels and coffee before the Saturday screenings.


San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 21-Aug. 7

Castro Theatre

429 Castro St., San Francisco (July 21-31)

[email protected] Alto Square

3000 El Camino Real, Palo Alto (July 23-28)

Roda Theatre at the Berkeley Rep

2015 Addison St., Berkeley (July 29-Aug. 4)

Piedmont Theatre

4186 Piedmont Ave., Oakland (Aug. 5-7)

Smith Rafael Film Center

1118 4th St., San Rafael (Aug. 5-7)

For a complete listing of films and related programming at the 36th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, see www.sfjff.org.

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.