"Shari & Lamb Chop" is the opening night selection of this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Courtesy SFJFF)
"Shari & Lamb Chop" is the opening night selection of this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Courtesy SFJFF)

S.F. Jewish Film Festival 2024: New venues, new voices and a guest festival director

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It’s a summer of “newness” for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, according to Lexi Leban, executive director of the Jewish Film Institute.

This will be the first festival in 15 years without Jay Rosenblatt serving as program director. The Oscar-nominated documentarian left JFI, which organizes the festival, in the spring to focus on his own projects. Ash Hoyle, a programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, was brought aboard as a guest festival director.

Also new: With the festival’s home base of the Castro Theatre undergoing renovations through 2025, the opening and closing night screenings will take place at the Palace of Fine Arts (POFA). Other films will screen at the Roxie Theater, Vogue Theater and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, as well at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland and Urban Adamah in Berkeley.

And then there’s the Israel-Hamas war.

The 44th annual festival, which runs July 18 to Aug. 4, will present 67 films from 16 countries, including 20 from Israel. All of them were completed before Oct. 7 and do not address the current war.

“We’re really mindful this year about holding space for multiple perspectives and for having really respectful civil discourse in the theaters,” Leban told J. in a recent interview. “We believe showing films is a way of deepening empathy, expanding understanding and looking at complexity and nuance.”

Asked if she was anticipating protests outside of the theaters, Leban replied, “It’s been an interesting time for arts organizations. We support freedom of expression and people’s right in a democratic society to protest and engage in all kinds of ways with the content that we’re showing.”

The July 18 opening night film is “Shari & Lamb Chop,” a documentary about the late ventriloquist Shari Lewis and her sheep sock puppet. Lewis’ daughter, Mallory, is expected to attend along with Lamb Chop herself.

“Many people of different generations connect to Shari Lewis and to Lamb Chop, and I think it’s a really celebratory way to kick off this year,” Leban said.

“Sabbath Queen,” a documentary about the New York rabbi and drag queen Amichai Lau-Lavie filmed across 21 years, is the festival’s closing night selection in San Francisco. Lau-Lavie and director Sandi DuBowski are expected to attend the screenings on July 28 at the POFA and July 30 at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre.

The centerpiece documentary is “Diane Warren: Relentless,” which looks back on the life and career of the songwriter, a perennial Oscar nominee, and screens Aug. 3 at the Piedmont. Jason Schwartzman plays a cantor in the centerpiece narrative, “Between the Temples,” which screens July 20 at the POFA and Aug. 3 at the Piedmont.

“Bad Shabbos” is the comedy spotlight, and Hoyle told J. it will be a crowd pleaser.

“It’s about a Shabbat dinner gone haywire, and it’s absolutely hilarious,” he said. “It features a wonderful cast, including Kyra Sedgwick and Milana Vayntrub.” Rapper Method Man also makes a cameo in the film, which is directed by Daniel Robbins and screens July 20 at the POFA and Aug. 2 at the Piedmont. (Robbins’ mockumentary Citizen Weiner” is also in the festival lineup.)

In collaboration with Reboot Studios and the National Center for Jewish Film, SFJFF will present a restored version of the 1922 silent film “Breaking Home Ties” with a live improvised score. The film, which is about a Russian Jewish immigrant living in New York City, will screen on July 24 at the Vogue.

As part of a program of films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the festival will screen several shorts by students at Sapir College in Israel. In addition, two films by men with Palestinian heritage will be screened: “Lyd” (July 28 at the Vogue and July 30 at the Piedmont), about the history of the Israeli city of Lod (known as Lyd in Arabic), and “Three Promises” (July 21 at the Vogue), a portrait of a Palestinian Christian family living in the West Bank during the second intifada.

Two films will make their world premieres at this year’s SFJFF: “Torah Tropical,” a documentary about an Orthodox Jewish family in Colombia and their quest to make aliyah, which screens on July 23 at the Vogue, and “www.RachelOrmont.com,” a sci-fi drama that screens on July 25 at the Roxie.

In a ceremony on July 27, Julie Cohen will receive JFI’s annual Freedom of Expression Award for “her visionary explorations of gender and justice,” the organization said in a press release. Cohen directed 2023’s “Every Body,” a documentary about three people born intersex, and was nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for “RBG,” a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020.

Visit jfi.org/sfjff-2024 to see the full lineup.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 18-Aug. 4, with screenings in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. $20 general, $15 JFI members, higher for special events. All-festival passes: $395 general, $345 members. Opening night screening and party: $75 general, $65 members.

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.