San Francisco Jewish Film Festival co-directors Deborah Kaufman and Janis Plotkin in 1991 on the balcony of the Castro Theatre. (Photo/File)
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival co-directors Deborah Kaufman and Janis Plotkin in 1991 on the balcony of the Castro Theatre. (Photo/File)

Tracing the growth of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival from 1980 to 2022

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival launched in 1980 as, simply, the Jewish Film Festival. The lineup included 10 films that were shown first in Los Angeles, and later at the old, pre-renovation Roxie Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District.

This year, the SFJFF is screening 71 films — including five world premieres — at theaters in San Francisco and Albany and, in a development unimaginable 42 years ago, online in a virtual screening room. The SFJFF is the longest-running festival of its kind, and it has spawned other such festivals around the world. It is widely considered to be the best-attended Jewish cultural event in the Bay Area, attracting film lovers of all ages and levels of communal affiliation. It starts tonight and runs through Aug. 7.

Curiously, the J. archives do not contain any articles from the SFJFF’s inaugural year — it was too small to warrant press, apparently. But since 1981, J. has dutifully covered the festival each year through news articles and film reviews. And in the pre-internet days, the paper included long listings of showtimes.

The founder, Deborah Kaufman, was a young law school graduate with no background in film. “There have always been festivals of French films or Italian films and festivals of particular film types, but I’d never heard of a festival giving exposure to the works of independent Jewish filmmakers,” she said in a July 1981 interview. Two years later, she explained that she organized the festival because she wanted to create a forum to promote “positive Jewish identity.”

RELATED: Why the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is the world’s oldest, longest-running Jewish film fest

“I had a feeling that proved to be true, that there was a desire by young American Jews to experience their community through events which are upbeat and different, like with films,” Kaufman said. “Now we have an intergenerational audience … people bring their parents, grandparents and kids.”

Another goal of Kaufman’s was to help Jewish filmmakers get their work seen and distributed. She said she knew many artists who “were concerned about the lack of distribution for independent films in general and Jewish films in particular.”

The lineup grew from 10 films that first year to 21 films from eight countries — including France, Austria and England — in 1983. In addition, Russian-language films were screened for emigres from the Soviet Union, some of whom, according to Kaufman, were unaware that films about Jewish life existed. (A refusenik director named Leonid Kelbert was invited to participate in the festival, though it is unclear if he was permitted to leave the Soviet Union to do so.)

1981: An early Jewish Bulletin article about the Jewish Film Festival
1981: An early Jewish Bulletin article about the Jewish Film Festival

The following year, more international films from Europe and Israel were added to the lineup. (“Subtitles were put in a number of them especially for the festival,” Kaufman said.) Some 7,000 people attended the 1984 festival, and many who filled out questionnaires indicated that “the festival was their first contact with the Jewish community.” This suggests that the SFJFF was a place where large numbers of Bay Area Jews and non-Jews encountered one another.

Post-screening conversations with directors, now a mainstay of the SFJFF, were introduced in 1985. The most recognizable name among the four who participated that year is probably Jeremy Paul Kagan, who directed “The Chosen,” an adaptation of the classic Chaim Potok novel.

The SFJFF continued to expand over the years — in the number of films shown, the length of the festival and the location of the screenings. In 1996, the year the SFJFF website went live, 49 films were shown over three weeks. Screenings were added at Stanford because South Bay residents “were tired of schlepping to the city,” festival director Janis Plotkin told this paper.

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

Many prominent people have appeared at the SFJFF, including former vice president Al Gore, who attended a screening of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” in 2017. Actors Kirk Douglas and Elliott Gould received the festival’s Freedom of Expression award in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

As many longtime J. readers will recall, the festival has also been at the center of a few controversies. When organizers began scheduling screenings on Shabbat in the late 1990s, some observant community members expressed their disapproval. The Israeli consulate pulled its support for the 2001 festival over a panel discussion that did not include explicitly pro-Israel voices.

And in 2009, the decision to screen a documentary about pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie — with her BDS-supporting mother in attendance — sparked an outcry and led to the resignation of the SFJFF board president. (In addition, the Jewish Community Federation passed a new policy saying it would not fund organizations that undermine Israel’s legitimacy.) The screening itself was a free-for-all, as J. reported: “Despite festival director Peter Stein’s plea not to interrupt or disrespect any element of the screening, including speakers before or after, many audience members hissed, booed and shouted at those whose opinions clashed with their own.”

Yet through protests and a pandemic (which forced the festival to hold a mini-festival online and at drive-in theaters), the SFJFF has stuck to its mission of exploring Jewish identity and bringing community members together.

“For people who find their connection to Judaism through Jewish culture, the festival is a major institution,” then-festival director Don Adams told the Bulletin in 2003. “There’s a strong feeling of connection between our core audience and the Jewish Film Festival, expressed in deep personal terms. Some have said to me, ‘The festival is my Rosh Hashanah, and the Castro Theatre is my shul.’”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.