Still from the docuentary "Oliver Sacks: His Own Life," playing at Jewish Film Institute's WinterFest.
Still from the docuentary "Oliver Sacks: His Own Life," playing at Jewish Film Institute's WinterFest.

Big issues and controversial personalities star in S.F. Jewish film fest’s WinterFest

Just when you think you’ve heard it all about the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn, along comes another documentary that takes your knowledge — and maybe your outrage — to a whole new level.

“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,” directed by the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two of Cohn’s most famous targets, is one of seven powerful documentaries at the seventh annual WinterFest, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute, which runs the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival every summer.

Beyond Cohn — whose shady character and strong ties to a young businessman named Donald Trump were revealed in last year’s Jewish film festival circuit documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” — the doc spotlight in WinterFest will fall on actor Peter Falk (“Colombo”), physician-author Oliver Sacks, philanthropist George Soros, a famous East Coast cantor, and some very topical issues like homelessness.

Taking place mainly at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco on Feb. 29 and March 1, WinterFest also includes four significant feature films, beginning with the youth-oriented comedy “Romance Analyst” on Feb. 27 at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.

Billed as a comedy about a platonic love triangle between a woman, her best friend and her therapist, “Romance Analyst” was selected in a category, Next Wave, aimed at viewers ages 18 to 35. Margherita Ghetti, JFI’s new Next Wave programmer, will present the quirky 2019 feature, and director Rachel Wortell will do a Q&A at the 7 p.m. screening.

“This is a film that really deals with Jewish culture in that demographic in New York City,” said Lexi Leban, JFI’s executive director. “It is not formulaic, is very original and has a very comedic sensibility.”

One of the documentaries is “Bedlam,” in which director Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, a psychologist haunted by the death of a mentally ill sister, takes up the subject of California homelessness by visiting ERs, jails and homeless camps. “This is one of our very favorite films. It’s also very personal,” Leban said.

Two of the features are romances set around World War II. The Hungarian drama “Those Who Remained” tells a tender story of two survivors, a young girl and an older doctor, who both lost their families in the Holocaust. Playing at 6:45 p.m. Feb. 29, the exquisitely paced drama, which was one of 10 films short-listed for the Oscars in the international category, emphasizes the importance of love and family in healing from trauma.

Jay Rosenblatt, JFI’s program director, described the 83-minute film (in Hungarian with English subtitles) as one of the best movies JFI has screened, ever. “For me it’s really up there,” he said. “It’s a very subtle and nuanced film. The performances are amazing.”

The sumptuously filmed “I’ll Find You” will follow at 8:45 Feb. 29. Filmed in Poland but spoken in English, the 116-minute film is a love story about two Polish musicians, one Jewish and one Catholic, separated by the German invasion of Poland. Director Martha Coolidge and screenwriter Bozenna Intrator will be present at the screening.

Though “Incitement,” Israel’s nomination for an Oscar this year, didn’t make the short list, the film did win a 2019 Ophir Award as Israel’s top film. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the two-hour thriller dramatizes the events leading up to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, tensely tracing the radicalization of the young Jewish assassin Yigal Amir. It will close WinterFest at 8 p.m. March 1. (It also screens on Feb. 23 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, and is the opening night film for the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival on Feb. 26 in Orinda.)

The documentary lineup includes “Soros,” a portrait of the Hungarian Jewish billionaire George Soros, whose embrace of progressive causes has made him a target of right-wingers, anti-Semites and conspiracy spinners worldwide. Directed by Jesse Dylan (son of Bob), the film provides the “complex portrait” the subject deserves, Leban said.

“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” directed by Ken Burns’ brother, Ric, explores the life and work of the late, famous neurologist, who battled drug addiction and came out as gay very late in life. Another doc is “Objector,” a 17-minute short by S.F.-based filmmaker Molly Stuart that follows a young Israeli woman who has issues with compulsory military service.

“It’s a really strong year, with excellent films and more guests than usual,” Leban said.

As for “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,” it is directed by Ivy Meeropol, whose grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were prosecuted by Cohn for spying during the height of the McCarthy Era, receiving the death penalty.

Though often compared to “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” — a popular documentary last year — “The Story of Roy Cohen” is “more personal,” Leban said. “I wouldn’t call it nonobjective [but] it is well-crafted and presents [much material], including about Cohn’s relationship to Trump.”

WinterFest serves as a kickoff event for the 40th anniversary of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, to be celebrated this summer from July 16 through Aug. 2. The deadline for submissions is Feb. 10.


Feb. 27 at New Parkway Theater, Oakland, and Feb. 29-March 1 at the Vogue Theatre, S.F. Individual tickets $15 general, $14 students/seniors. Passes are available.  (415) 621-0568

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.