A man in glasses stands with a large remote control device in a graveyard, with a drone hovering nearby
Filmmaker Yoav Potash using a drone to film at the Treblinka extermination camp. (Photo/Jewish Film Institute)

Picks for Jewish Film Institute residencies strive to reach general audiences

San Francisco producer Marc Smolowitz was already prolific, having produced more than 30 films over the previous couple of decades, before he applied to be last year’s filmmaker-in-residence at the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute.

But other than his 2001 documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” a groundbreaking look at homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world, and “Havana Curveball,” a 56-minute piece about a student’s bar mitzvah project collecting baseball equipment for kids in Cuba, his films didn’t generally tackle Jewish themes.

The two projects he brought into the residency, however, make a passionate case for the centrality of so-called “Jewish issues” for the culture at large.

“I knew that, for this opportunity, I had to make a film that had strong links within the Jewish community,” Smolowitz explained.

One of his films in progress, “The Lonely Child,” is about a lullaby written for Alix Wall’s grandmother, who, as a child, was rescued from the Vilna Ghetto by a non-Jewish family — as was Smolowitz’s own mother, in wartime Poland. Wall, a contributing editor and food writer for J., is the writer and co-producer of the film, which is in pre-production.

“When I learned about Alix’s grandmother, Rachela, I knew this was our film to make,” Smolowitz said. “I didn’t want to make a film that beats you over the head with the horrors of the Holocaust, but one that is contemplative and promotes healing. This film is really about connecting cultures through the power of music.”

Similarly, Berkeley film director Yoav Potash once vowed he would never make a film about the Holocaust —– unless he could find an angle that provided something never told before. One of four artists chosen for the 2019-2020 JFI residency, Potash believes he has found those angles in not one but two documentaries in progress, “Diary From the Ashes” and “The Remembered.”

“Diary” investigates the mystery of the diary of Polish teenager Rywka Lipszyc, who wrote it while confined to the Lodz Ghetto during World War II. The diary was rescued from the ashes of Auschwitz and brought to San Francisco decades later. “The Remembered” is a story about choices of conscience — both for and against the interests of the Jews — made by Polish people in the small town of Gniewoszów. The idea for the film came from Anita Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, whose father was a survivor of the wartime events there.

“The prior assumption was that we had told enough stories about the Holocaust, that ‘Schindler’s List’ had done the lion’s share of the work of bringing awareness to the general public,” he said. “But I think that, based on the current political climate, the acts of anti-Semitism we’re now seeing everywhere in the world, including the U.S., and the studies of how many millennials know little or nothing about the Holocaust, we can see that there is still a great need to educate people, far and wide.”

One outgoing fellow, one incoming — both are fully committed spokespersons for a type of Jewish filmmaking that speaks not only to Jewish film festival patrons but to a universal audience.

The challenge is to make films fresh and universal enough that they transcend Jewish interest.

“We need to make sure that non-Jewish people are also listening to this information and watching these films,” Smolowitz said. And funding them, Potash added.

“Diary from the Ashes,” which has received funding from multiple Jewish organizations, recently received its first financial support from a non-Jewish organization. “The Remembered” is forging new links between Jews and non-Jews in Poland, the U.S. and Israel who have a connection to the story.

“The challenge with both films is to make them fresh and universal enough that they transcend Jewish interest and cross over to other audiences,” Potash said.

As announced on Dec. 6, Potash is one of four film artists accepted into the JFI Filmmaker Residency for 2019-2020. The program was launched in 2012 to support independent filmmakers whose work promotes the exploration and understanding of Jewish identity and culture.

The Jewish Film Institute presents the annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival festival, and also puts energy and time toward fostering media arts.

Steven Pressman
Steven Pressman

The other new fellows are Steven Pressman, Sari Gilman and Eva Ilona Brzeski. It is the first year that there have been four residents at one time, reflecting JFI’s desire to expand the program, according to Lexi Leban, the organization’s executive director.

Pressman is the writer, director and producer of “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” which screened at the SFJFF in 2013. For his residency, he will be working on “Holy Secrets,” a documentary about the struggle between Pope Pius XI, who on his deathbed in 1939 wanted to issue a papal encyclical condemning Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and incoming Pope Pius XII, who steered the Holy See away from an outright condemnation.

Sari Gilman
Sari Gilman

Gilman made her directorial debut with a bang: “Kings Point,” a film about seniors living in a retirement community that screened in the 2011 SFJFF. The 40-minute film was nominated for an Academy Award (short documentary) and aired on HBO. Gilman recently co-directed and edited the Netflix original “Saving Capitalism,” about economist Robert Reich. During her residency, she will be working on “One Family,” a docudrama about her father, who believes that Israel does not have a right to exist. Family dialogues around the issue provide the film’s inspiration.

Brzeski is the award-winning writer, director and editor of the films “This Unfamiliar Place,” “24 Girls” and “China Diary (911),” and the director-editor of the underground film “Last Seen.” She just completed the new short film “Fellow American,” soon to be launched on social media.

Eva Ilona Brzeski
Eva Ilona Brzeski

Brzeski will be working on her film project, “Fatherland,” about her own father, who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto at age 14, assuming the identity of a non-Jewish Pole, and never saw his family again nor reclaimed his Jewish identity. The filmmaker finally confronts her 93-year-old father, trying to understand the story he never told her.

“This year we received a record amount of applicants and we are thrilled about selecting four talented filmmakers who have a history with JFI and are working on exciting new projects exploring the complexities of Jewish identity and history,” Joshua Moore, programmer for JFI, said in the announcement.

During the residencies, the filmmakers (each in various stages of their respective projects) will receive creative, production and marketing support from JFI.

Residents also get private office space in the JFI’s building in downtown San Francisco, which constitutes “significant support given the cost of work space in this city,” Leban said. They’ll also get use of the JFI screening room, access to JFI staff for consultations, introductions to film industry professionals and, of course, passes to next year’s film festival July 18 to Aug. 4.

Looking back on his year as a resident, Smolowitz said that the experience deepened his awareness of the greater mission of telling Jewish stories through film.

“I came to understand that by making ‘The Lonely Child’ I am fighting anti-Semitism,” he said.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.