The 2022 East Bay  International Jewish Film Festival will include a teens-only, socially distanced, in-person screening of “The Raft,” a hit Israeli coming-of-age story.
The 2022 East Bay International Jewish Film Festival will include a teens-only, socially distanced, in-person screening of “The Raft,” a hit Israeli coming-of-age story.

East Bay Jewish film fest aims to elevate virtual cinematic experience

If you planned a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding in the last two years — heck, if you were simply invited to a celebration for a couple months down the road — you can probably empathize with Riva Gambert, director of the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

For a brief, bright window back in the early fall of 2021, with vaccines widely available and the delta variant waning, the EBIJFF’s return to theaters for its annual March shindig seemed likely. As the deadline approached to book cinemas, however, the pandemic took another turn for the worse.

“We had to make a decision as omicron was surging,” Gambert recalled in an interview. That involved not only projecting the risks posed by the disease but also dealing with local government guidelines and facility protocols. When the Sundance Film Festival put the kibosh on its in-person screenings in January and pivoted to an entirely virtual program, that sealed the deal.

So the EBIJFF’s 2022 edition unspools March 12 to 26 online, as it did last year. To augment and enhance the festival-on-the-couch approach, no fewer than a dozen of the 30 films in the program will be followed by recorded talks by professors and other experts, such as Israeli Deputy Consul General Matan Zamir (for Avi Nesher’s 1948 saga “Image of Victory”) and historian Fred Rosenbaum (for the World War II dramas “Berenshtein” and “Into the Darkness”).

Another piece of good news is the leap from last year’s reduced slate of 18 films to this year’s 30, including the teens-only, socially distanced, in-person screening of “The Raft,” Oded Raz’s crowd-pleasing tale of four Israeli teens determined to sail to Cyprus for a big soccer match. (Call the festival office at (925) 240-3053 or visit eastbayjewishfilm.org to reserve a ticket.)

Gambert said the program was expanded so no gems would have to get left on the screening room floor. “Each member of the screening committee said, ‘We can’t get rid of this film,’” with everyone citing a different favorite.

Also, she added, “It’s been a tough two years for our community, and we wanted to give back.”

The decision to present a bigger festival than in 2021 was made easier by that most welcome development, a plethora of quality Jewish-themed films to choose from. This abundance can be attributed to a confluence of factors, notably Covid-buffeted distributors releasing titles they had once earmarked for theatrical release and filmmakers finishing movies sooner than expected during and after lockdowns.

Vadim Perelman’s Holocaust-era drama “Persian Lessons” illustrates the pandemic-era flux that has especially impacted adult-oriented foreign-language films. Acclaimed at its Berlin International Film Festival premiere in February 2020, the saga of a Belgian-Jewish POW whose survival strategy requires teaching Farsi — a language he doesn’t know — to a Nazi officer is finally reaching the East Bay.

“It’s taken us two years to get it,” Gambert said. “The U.S. distributor wouldn’t even take our phone calls.”

Similarly, the distributor of “The Automat,” an affectionate history of the sadly defunct New York and Philadelphia restaurant chain Horn & Hardart, originally wanted to wait for audiences to return en masse to theaters. (Makes sense: A film about the attraction and necessity of affordable public spaces where strangers’ paths cross should be experienced in just such a place.)

But in the face of demand from virtual festivals, the distributor relented, and the EBIJFF grabbed Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary — which features Mel Brooks singing his original tribute song — to open the festival.

“Films are made to be seen,” Gambert said, “and there’s a limit to how long you can keep a film off the screen, even if it’s a small screen in someone’s living room.”

“Screenwriters and directors are looking at the global Jewish experience in an expanded way,” she continued. “There are different ways of incorporating a Jewish subplot, or a historic event, that would probably not have made their way into films a decade ago.”

The German coming-of-age drama “Wet Dog” is an especially exciting example, with its familiar-yet-fresh take on immigration, assimilation and identity filtered through an Iranian Jewish youth.

“It brings you inside a predominantly Muslim community in Germany, and it focuses on how young people — teens, early 20s — identify more with the birthplace of their parents than where they live,” Gambert said. “Parts of it are sad, like the good part of holding on to your own culture but not being part of the national experience. What does it mean to have a certain ethnic identity, and how do you live it to the fullest?”

Gambert is particularly pleased that the festival found three solid comedies, led by the German romantic comedy “Love & Mazel Tov” and the French dramedy “Rose.” Assaf Abiri and Matan Guggenheilm’s droll geriatric marijuana farce “Greener Pastures” has the additional benefit of fulfilling one of Gambert’s perennial goals: To showcase aspects of Israeli life and Israeli moviemaking that are generally overlooked.

“Israeli films deal with so many subjects and themes and characters and plotlines which aren’t what the average person normally thinks about Israel — politics and conflict,” Gambert said. “Films allow us to think about the depth and complexity of Israeli culture and society.”

Not many people have grappled with that complexity and depth with more insight than the Israeli novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman, whose lives and ideas provide ample grist for the documentaries “The Fourth Window” and “Grossman.”

The festival opens with “The Automat” on March 12, after which two new films will begin streaming every day through March 26. Each will be available to stream for seven days. For example, “Powder Keg: The Day We Died” and “The Fourth Window” will be available for a week starting March 13, and “Plan A” and “The Pianist from Ramallah” will be available for a week starting March 22. The two films that start on March 26, “Minyan” and “Tiger Within,” will be available through April 1.

East Bay International Jewish Film Festival

March 12 to 26. $10.50 for individual films, $180 for a premiere pass, which includes access to all films and special events, along with a donation to the festival. Ticket holders can stream only in the Bay Area; pass holders can stream from anywhere.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.