Cleavon Little (left) and Gene Wilder in "Blazing Saddles."
Cleavon Little (left) and Gene Wilder in "Blazing Saddles."

S.F. Jewish Film Fest 2023 lineup announced: Gene Wilder, Bella Abzug, ‘Prince of Egypt’

Rabbi Avram Belinski is headed back to Frisco this summer.

A documentary about Gene Wilder, the late Jewish comedian who portrayed that horseback-riding-except-on-Shabbat rabbi in “The Frisco Kid” and starred in the Mel Brooks-directed classics “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles,” will open this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which runs July 20 to Aug. 6.

Wilder’s widow, Karen Wilder, will attend the screening of “Remembering Gene Wilder” at the Castro Theatre. A party will follow at the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

“Bella!,” a documentary about Bella Abzug, the New York member of Congress and feminist leader, will close the festival’s run at the Castro on July 30.

“Younger generations of people don’t really know who Bella Abzug was, so I think this is a really good opportunity to introduce new generations to her role and her character, which is incredibly powerful and dynamic and rebellious and angry, all of it wound up in one,” Lexi Leban, the Jewish Film Institute’s executive director, told J. (The institute runs the film fest, now in its 43rd year. J. is a media sponsor.)

The film touches on Abzug’s relationship with singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who was “an early supporter and did a lot of campaigning with her,” Leban said. Former House Speaker and current U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles make appearances, reflecting on Abzug’s legacy.

SFJFF films will also screen at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco and the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland. Tickets for individual screenings are $18, with discounts for students/seniors and JFI members. Festival passes are $425; San Francisco-only and East Bay-only passes are offered at lower rates.

Other highlights include “My Neighbor Adolf,” the centerpiece narrative feature film about a Holocaust survivor living in a South American village in 1960 who becomes convinced that his German neighbor is Adolf Hitler. It will play July 22 at the Castro.

The centerpiece documentary, “Red Herring,” is an autobiographical work by Kit Vincent, a British man in his 20s who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Vincent, a 2022 JFI filmmaker in residence, is expected to attend the July 23 screening at the Castro. The film will also play Aug. 4 at the Piedmont.

“You would think the film is morose and challenging and depressing, but it’s actually really life affirming as this family allows us into their process of coping with this news,” Leban said. It also includes “one of the best bar mitzvah scenes I’ve ever seen in film, and I’ve seen many over the years.”

After two years away from its longtime home at the Castro Theatre, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was back at the iconic movie theater last month. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
After two years away from its longtime home at the Castro Theatre, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was back at the iconic movie theater in 2022. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

On July 30, the Castro will show “The Prince of Egypt” in honor of the 25th anniversary of the release of the beloved animated adaptation of the Exodus story, which has an all-star voice cast. Viewers of all ages are invited.

Festival-goers who enjoy Israeli TV will have an opportunity to watch the first four episodes of “Madrasa,” a new TV comedy from Palestinian Israeli writer Sayed Kashua (“Arab Labor,” “Shtisel”) set at the Peace School for Bilingual Education in Jerusalem. (“Madrasa” means school in Arabic.) The episodes will run back to back on July 29 at the Vogue and Aug. 2 at the Piedmont.

“Madrasa” is part of the festival’s program known as “Fractured Lens: Divergent Perspectives on Israel and Palestine.” The program also includes “Israelism,” a documentary about the generational divide within American Jewry over attitudes toward Israel (July 27 at the Vogue and Aug. 6 at the Piedmont), and “A Gaza Weekend,” a disaster movie parody about a couple trying to escape Israel as a virus spreads through the country. (The film, it should be noted, was written before the Covid pandemic.)

Another festival program shines a light on abortion access in America with three films: “Plan C,” a documentary on reproductive rights activist Francine Coeytaux; “Under G-d,” a short documentary about Jewish women’s responses to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022; and “Deciding Vote,” another short documentary about New York State Assemblyman George Michaels and his role in passing an abortion rights bill in 1970.

This year’s Freedom of Expression award winner is actress Lisa Edelstein, a star of the medical drama series “House” who also promotes vegetarianism and works with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The festival’s full lineup of 67 films from 18 countries — 25 feature-length documentaries and 16 narrative films, along with 24 shorts — can be found at

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 20-23 and July 30 at Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco; July 25-29 at Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento St., San Francisco; Aug. 1-6 at Landmark’s Piedmont Theatre, 4186 Piedmont Ave, Oakland.

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.