Zuzanna Sorowy in "My Name Is Sara," the true story of 13-year-old Holocaust survivor Sara Goralnik.
Zuzanna Sorowy in "My Name Is Sara," the true story of 13-year-old Holocaust survivor Sara Goralnik.

Sonoma JCC’s film festival kicks off 25th anniversary year

It’s been months since the Sonoma County JCC had to switch to virtual programming, and just weeks ago its office in Santa Rosa was a few blocks away from the Glass Fire evacuation zone.

But the center’s annual Jewish film festival will go on! Starting Oct. 13, people can watch from home — or wherever they may be sheltering currently.

“What a year to be celebrating our 25th anniversary,” said Irène Hodes, the JCC’s film festival and cultural events director. “In Sonoma, we’ve become almost professionals at handling these crises. It’s our crucible.”

Through it all, including the Tubbs Fire in 2017, the JCC has continued to be there for the community, she said, not only reaching out and staying in touch, but also offering Jewish culture and art.

“It’s healing. It’s strengthening. It provides continuity,” Hodes said.

Normally, the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival is a series, rolling out one film per week (over a month or so) in a local movie theater. This year, in-person screenings are out, and what’s in is a format that will allow ticket holders to watch any of the films on-demand from Oct. 13 through Nov. 16.

On the program are six new or recent full-length films, plus a program of four diverse shorts. There are dramas, comedies and documentaries.

“It’s a good time to have quality movies to watch,” Hodes said.

Most tickets to the renamed Sonoma County Virtual Jewish Film Festival include a live or recorded appearance by the film’s director. Also, viewers will be asked to vote for the best feature and best short.

One highly anticipated offering is “Sublet,” a 2020 drama about a gay New York Times travel writer who spends a week in Tel Aviv. Recovering from a personal tragedy, the writer, played by Tony Award-winner John Benjamin Hickey, is restored both by the energy of the city and his relationship with a younger man. It’s a “beautiful story” that offers a “beautiful picture of the real Tel Aviv, the city locals know,” Hodes said.

“This is a film that would have been in theaters were it not for Covid,” she added.

Most of the film is in English, with smatterings of Hebrew. Israeli director Eytan Fox (“Walk on Water”) will give a virtual talk about the film on Sunday, Oct. 18 at 11 a.m. in cooperation with the East Bay International Jewish Film festival, which will screen the film the following week.

Two compelling features about survivors are among the festival’s dramatic offerings.

“My Name Is Sara,” released in 2020, is based on the true story of a 13-year-old Polish Jewish girl who escapes to Ukraine and assumes a Christian identity after her family is killed by Nazis. Gorgeously filmed in the Polish countryside, the feature-film debut of U.S. director Steven Oritt examines the suffering of Ukrainian peasants at the hands of the Soviets and the Germans, and the role this played in their treatment of the Jews during the war. The film is in English and Ukrainian.

The other is “Those Who Remained,” a tender and lyrical tale of a teenage girl and a 40-something doctor who are brought together in postwar Budapest. After losing all the members of their respective families in the Holocaust, they form a cautious relationship that helps them heal. Released in 2019, this Hungarian film already has played at the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute’s WinterFest and in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, but certainly many people have not seen it yet — and should, especially now, Hodes said.

“We are living through a traumatic time,” Hodes said, while emphasizing that she is by no means comparing today’s level of trauma to the Holocaust. But “it is meaningful to see what PTSD looks like, and how people heal.”

Director Barnabás Tóth will discuss the film virtually; check the festival website for an announcement of the date.

For sheer escapist pleasure, Hodes recommends “Mossad,” a zany comedy about a U.S. tech billionaire kidnapped in Jerusalem, which has been compared to the 1988 American film “The Naked Gun.”

“The Passengers” is a documentary about the journey of two Ethopian Jews — guests of an NYU professor — to the United States, where they hoped to raise awareness of the plight of their community and its thousands of members seeking to make aliyah. The film is in English, Hebrew and Amharic, and director Ryan S. Porush will offer his insider view in a live Zoom talk at 7 p.m. Oct. 27.

Another solid documentary is “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” a 2020 release about Tamar Manasseh, an African American rabbinical student, mother and community activist on Chicago’s South Side. Brad Rothschild’s film explores the woman’s multifaceted identity, her challenges and her motivations as she strives to put her Jewish values into action. Rothschild will speak in a Zoom event on Nov. 10 at a time to be announced.

The festival also includes a program of four shorts from around the world. The topics include an Israeli dancer with a hearing disability, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved some 6,000 Jews, and a comedy set in the West Bank.

“They are all completely different, and every one is excellent,” Hodes said.

Sonoma County Virtual Jewish Film Festival

Oct. 13–Nov. 16. Festival pass: $80 single, $100 per household. Per film: $14, $24.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.