"My Name Is Andrea," a documentary about feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, will be shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
"My Name Is Andrea," a documentary about feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, will be shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Bernstein, Dworkin, Ken Burns: San Francisco Jewish film fest lineup teems with cultural icons

The 42nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which opens July 21 at the Castro Theatre, teems with household names and cultural icons: Leonard Bernstein, Andrea Dworkin, Ken Burns, Lior Ashkenazi, Nathalie Baye, Sayed Kashua, David Strathairn and more.

But the most revered guest of honor in the festival’s ecstatic return to a bevy of in-person screenings since the pre-Covid summer of 2019? The audience.

Since its inception, the SFJFF has been a community event — a place where Bay Area Jews could embrace their identity regardless of religious practice, family history or structure, political orientation or synagogue affiliation. For all the convenience of virtual, at-home film viewing, nothing compares with joining the extended mishpocha for a shared experience in a movie house.

J. The Jewish News of Northern California is a media sponsor of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Check out our full coverage here.

Few things bond an audience more than laughter, hence the opening-night choice of the star-studded Israeli comedy “Karaoke” fresh from its Tribeca Film Festival premiere. Staid suburban 60-somethings Sasson Gabay (“The Band’s Visit”) and Rita Shukrun are rejuvenated by their new neighbor, swinging, singing bachelor Lior Ashkenazi (“Hit & Run,” “Walk on Water”).

“I think it’s a perfect opening-night film, as we’re coming back into the theater and joining together post-pandemic,” said Lexi Leban, executive director of Jewish Film Institute, the festival’s parent organization. “I know we’re not completely on the other side, but ‘Karaoke’ is perfect because it’s a film about awakenings and reinvention. I think it’ll be a very powerful moment for coming back, taking stock of our lives and where we go from here.”

Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun star in the Israeli comedy "Karaoke."
Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun star in the Israeli comedy “Karaoke.”

Recognizing that Covid isn’t in the rearview mirror yet, masks and up-to-date vaccination will be required for the Castro (July 21-25) as well as the East Bay lineup at the Albany Twin (July 26-31). For those postponing their return to theaters, a selection of 14 films, some of which are in the live program, will be available via the festival’s online screening room Aug. 1-7. Altogether, the festival presents 71 films, including 31 shorts curated into three dedicated programs and screening with features.

“We realize that some people aren’t fully comfortable being back in theaters,” Leban said. “But we’re doing everything that we can to encourage people to come back into the safest environment possible that we are providing, because we really feel that there’s no substitute for the community experience that you have together in the theater.”

That group dynamic will be palpable when Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein screen a 45-minute preview of “The U.S. and the Holocaust” at the Castro on July 25. The filmmakers will join former KQED radio host Michael Krasny onstage for a history-steeped conversation against the current backdrop of rising antisemitism and anti-immigrant prejudice. The entire six-hour series, airing in three parts, debuts Sept. 18 on PBS.

Another timely work of powerful nonfiction, “My Name Is Andrea,” receives its West Coast premiere July 23 at the Castro in the Local Spotlight slot. East Bay filmmaker Pratibha Parmar rediscovers and revives the piercing insights and fearless rhetoric of Jewish feminist author Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005), who bravely drew on her traumatic experiences to expose the endemic abuses of women in supposedly civilized society.

“My Name Is Andrea” is one of five films in the festival that received JFI grants or other support, a reflection of the organization’s broadening footprint in the Jewish film world. Director Patrice O’Neill and producer Charene Zallis document the three-year aftermath of the Pittsburgh shul massacre in “Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life” (July 31 at the Albany), while David Straitharn adapts for film his bravura stage performance as Polish resistance fighter and postwar professor Jan Karski in the world premiere of “Remember This” (July 24 at the Castro).

“One of the big, exciting silver linings of the pandemic is, because we’ve been able to focus on our filmmakers services programs, we’ve nurtured works in progress through our filmmakers-in-residence program, which has flourished under Marcia Jarmel’s leadership,” Leban said. “This year is an incredible opportunity to spotlight the fact that JFI is not only a premier exhibition [venue] for Jewish-content films, but we are also now a player in the funding landscape.”

The slate of far-ranging fiction films features another brilliant actor in an adaptation of an acclaimed play. Daniel Auteuil plays a Jewish jeweler in Nazi-occupied Paris in the twisty, surprising French drama “Farewell, Mr. Haffmann,” screening July 22 at the Castro in the Centerpiece Narrative slot. Contemporary France is the setting for “Haute Couture,” Sylvie Ohayon’s worlds-collide tale of a seamstress nearing retirement (Nathalie Baye) who unexpectedly connects with a younger woman.

Israeli director Eran Kolirin (“The Band’s Visit”) returns to the festival with “Let It Be Morning,” his adaptation of Palestinian author Sayed Kashua’s 2006 satiric Hebrew-language novel. Israel’s submission for the Academy Awards (following its sweep of the Ophir Awards) centers on an Israeli Arab whose return visit to his village for a wedding is complicated by Israeli military actions. “Let It Be Morning” closes the SFJFF at the Albany on July 31.

The aforementioned Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi (“Karaoke”) is also bringing his feature directorial debut, the sharp-edged ensemble piece “Perfect Strangers,” to the festival (July 22 at the Castro). Longtime friends assemble for dinner on the fateful night of an eclipse, then rashly agree to share every phone-delivered text, call and alert with the group. Expect a banquet of secrets, lies and revelations.

The Next Wave selection is “Simchas and Sorrows” (July 22 at the Castro), in which writer-director Genevieve Adams plays an actress persuaded by her future in-laws to convert to Judaism.

The SFJFF’s most unsettling films, unsurprisingly, are documentaries. The uncompromising Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa exposes the infamous massacre of more than 30,000 Jews in two days in 1941 in “Babi Yar. Context” (July 24 at the Castro). “Speer Goes to Hollywood” (July 31 at the Albany) focuses on a particular chapter in Albert Speer’s tireless postwar effort to whitewash his Nazi crimes.

Arguably the most upsetting film in the festival centers on the behavior of Jewish fighters during the War of Independence. Israeli documentary maker Alon Schwartz’s “Tantura,” which debuted at Sundance in January and receives its California premiere July 30 at the Albany, brilliantly challenges long-standing myths surrounding the battle for the Jewish state in such a way that anyone, of any age, who loves Israel must confront the 1948 events in question.

If self-reflection is one response to watching films in the company of others, kvelling is another. “Bernstein’s Wall” (July 23 at the Castro in the Centerpiece Documentary slot) is Douglas Tirola’s expansive portrait of conductor, composer and activist Leonard Bernstein. The film reacquaints us with a complicated genius.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 21-Aug. 7. In-person screenings at the Castro Theatre (July 21-25) and Albany Twin Theater (July 26-31), as well as online screenings (Aug. 1-7). $15-$18 for individual in-person screenings, $9-$11 for online screenings. Passes available.

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.