A scene from the digitally restored version of “Avanti Popolo,” a 1986 comical saga about the 1967 War
A scene from the digitally restored version of “Avanti Popolo,” a 1986 comical saga about the 1967 War

S.F. Jewish Film Fest packs Karl Marx, Al Gore, Hedy Lamarr and more into 17 days

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With 64 films from 14 countries, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival had a broad array of choices when it came time to pick the opening-night film, from a political comedy about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the unusual story of a modern dancer in Israel’s most famous troupe.

Organizers went in an unusual direction, and will open this year’s festival with a film by a first-time writer and director about a community of adults on the autism spectrum who meet at a JCC in Manhattan. Rachel Israel’s romantic comedy “Keep the Change” kicks off the annual event on July 20 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

The 11-day run at the Castro wraps up on July 30 with a film by another woman making her directorial debut. Alexandra Dean’s “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” chronicles the stunning Jewish actress’ feats on the silver screen and her lesser-known brainy accomplishments as an inventor. Produced by Susan Sarandon, the film will be shown three other times in the festival.

“We’re always really mindful to represent the whole spectrum of Jewish experience,” says Lexi Leban, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute, which runs the festival.

Six other films in the festival are by women making their directorial debuts, and many others are by established female filmmakers. With 41 percent of its selections directed by women, the 2017 SFJFF will substantially exceed the 29 percent average among the top 23 U.S. film festivals, according to Leban.

Two films are by Israeli Palestinian women: “Personal Affairs” and “In Between.” Both are described as “dramedies,” both drama and comedy.

“We rarely get Palestinian women directors,” Leban adds. “It’s a new lens to see light through.”

Also reflecting its commitment to diversity, the festival is presenting a topical program called “Exodus: A Sidebar on the Refugee Experience.” Of the five films in this category, some were sparked by the raging refugee crisis across the Atlantic, while others focus on historic mass flights, like the 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned,” inspired by the fate of the St. Louis carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to Cuba in 1939.

The “Exodus” program will include a panel discussion on the immigration and refugee crises, with several experts in the field and Michael Krasny serving as moderator. Panel discussions will also be a part of other screenings, such as on July 24 at the Castro Theatre for the fourth annual SFJFF “Take Action Day,” featuring films dedicated to community action and social justice.

One of the highlights of “Take Action Day” will be the screening of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” a follow-up to former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” of 2006. Local filmmakers The film, by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows Gore as he travels around the world advocating for issues related to climate change. The directors, as well as Gore, will be at the screening.

Speaking of taking action, this year’s Freedom of Expression Award will go to documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, whose 2009 film “Crude” exposed Texaco and Exxon’s despoiling pristine Amazon rainforest in Ecuador over the last half-century. His 2014 film “Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger” examined judicial corruption.

Berlinger will appear at the festival on July 27 to accept his award, preceded by a screening of his newest work, “Intent to Destroy,” an examination of the Turkish campaign of genocide against the Armenian people in the early years of World War I.

The festival’s centerpiece narrative film is “1945,” by Hungarian filmmaker Ferenc Török. JFI program director Jay Rosenblatt describes the Holocaust-related piece as “a subtle and nuanced study in the collective guilt and enduring anti-Semitism of postwar Hungary.”

“Dina,” the centerpiece documentary, is about a far-from-typical middle-age suburban couple planning their wedding. Both Dina and Scott have developmental disabilities and have built their own support community. Though tackling a serious subject, “Dina,” which won the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, also has “lots of humor,” Rosenblatt says.

And though there are several Israeli films in the lineup, the festival is taking a special look at the Six-Day War in “50 Years: Six Days that Shaped Modern Israel.” The program showcases a digitally restored version of “Avanti Popolo,” a 1986 comical saga about the 1967 war, and “Ben-Gurion Epilogue,” a 2016 documentary that includes a never-before-aired, “very prescient” interview, Leban says, with Israel’s first prime minister.

“This year’s program reflects filmmakers’ critical role in the national conversation about identity, inclusivity, pluralism and democracy,” Leban writes in the festival brochure. “Filmmakers and artists are using their creativity to make sense of our world and to mine our collective history for lessons we can apply to the present.”

Two movies are teamed with live artistic performances. “Body and Soul: An American Bridge,” a documentary about how music can bring people together, will be followed by a jazz performance by the Marcus Shelby Quartet on July 23 at the Castro Theatre. And viewers of “Bobbi Jene,” about a San Francisco dancer who performed for a decade with Israel’s acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company, can see the dancer perform on Aug. 2 at ODC Theater in San Francisco.

“Bobbi Jene” is one of several films in the festival’s “Next Wave” package designed for the under-35 crowd and spotlighting contemporary life. Some of the others: “The Boy Downstairs,” a romantic comedy starring Zosia Mamet of the popular HBO series “Girls”; “Planetarium,” starring Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as séance-entranced sisters in 1930s Paris; and “Gilbert,” a documentary about the brash, shrill-voiced comic Gilbert Gottfried (former voice of the Aflac insurance duck).

As usual, the festival will open with a splash. After watching “Keep the Change,” filmgoers can head down to the Contemporary Jewish Museum for noshing, dancing and potential mingling with some of the filmmakers.

East Bay opening night, presenting the period drama “The Young Karl Marx,” by Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”), will be followed by a block party on Solano Avenue outside the Albany Twin theater, this year’s main East Bay venue.

Other festival venues are the CineArts in Palo Alto and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The beer-and-snack-friendly New Parkway Theater in Oakland will have one screening, on closing night, Aug. 6, of “The Guys Next Door,” a documentary about a blended family. For the full festival program and ticket information, go to sfjff.org.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.