Jewish Film Festival Expands to 3 weeks, Palo Alto, Web venues

At the age of 16, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has broadened its horizons, leaping into Silicon Valley and cyberspace. This year a Palo Alto theater joins longtime San Francisco and Berkeley venues, as the festival extends its run to three weeks.

The 16th annual festival, which opens Thursday, July 18 at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, is dedicated to Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Seven peace-related films from Israel, America, Belgium and Denmark are included in the lineup.

"In our shock and sadness over [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's death, we got letters and faxes from Israel asking us to dedicate our efforts to peacemakers," festival director Janis Plotkin explained. "These films are reactions and responses to three years of the peace process and Rabin's death."

Responding to other concerns, the festival added a five-day run at Stanford University's Cubberley Theatre because South Bay residents "were tired of shlepping to the city," Plotkin said.

The South Peninsula "is where the growth of the Jewish community is. Stanford and Silicon Valley have some of the best minds in the world, many of them Jewish."

The Berkeley-based festival has expanded in other ways: It now occupies a site on the World Wide Web (http://www.sfjff.org) and an office in San Francisco.

"Our charge is to reach out to young, unaffiliated and otherwise not-connected Jews, to create a unique community where everyone has a place," Plotkin said.

The Web site offers schedules, interviews with directors such as filmmaker and klezmer musician Yale Strom, black-and-white movie stills and TV listings of film showings. "We're assuming those surfing the net are younger and computer literate," Plotkin said. The Web site will "help bring the next generation with us."

Still, the most consistent way the festival staff — Plotkin, associate director Caroline Libresco and assistant director Josh Feiger — meets its mission is by bringing the best Jewish films to the Bay Area.

This year's sampling includes 49 films from 12 countries. They will be screened July 18 to 25 at the Castro, July 27 to Aug. 1 at the U.C. Theatre in Berkeley and Aug. 3 to 7 at the Cubberley.

Some of the films are optimistic works about the possibility of peaceful coexistence: One such film is "You, Me, Jerusalem," the story of a Jewish paramedic team and an Arab doctor, co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian.

A darker treatise is "119 Bullets + 3," which explores the politics of right-wing Jewish extremists. The rather cryptic title refers to the number of shots fired by Baruch Goldstein at Hebron Muslims in 1994 (119) and by Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin (three).

Not all the films are this heavy, however. Plotkin cast a conscientious eye on viewers' urgent requests for "more laughs."

Opening night should unleash a flood of chuckles with the French comedy hit "Not Everybody's Lucky Enough to Have Had Communist Parents."

Plotkin describes this as "the quintessential perfect San Francisco Jewish Film Festival film. It's about Jewish idealism in the 1950s, when communism was the [remedy] for all social ills. This was true for so many Jews, especially Holocaust survivors."

Set in the autumn of 1958, the film chronicles the struggle between Holocaust survivor Irene, who is a devout Communist, and her Gaullist husband, Bernard. The story is told by the couple's grown son.

Bernard wishes his wife would pay as much attention to him as to "the Cause." But when the Red Army Choir comes to Paris, Irene falls for its dashing soloist. She lives out her wildest fantasies and — remarkably — improves her marriage.

Yet more laughs are in the offing with "Shtick, Shmaltz, and Shtereotypes: Jewish Presence in Early Film Comedy [1912-1940]." Local archivist Jenni Olson and filmmaker David Weissman curate 86 minutes of black-and-white shorts, including "Insurance" with Eddie Cantor and "Delicatessen Kid" with Benny Rubin.

The collection represents "vaudeville, the Catskills and even before. It's funny — but also quite painful, shocking and racist, too," Plotkin said. "The humor is reliant on stereotypes" — of Jews, blacks, gays, Chinese and Italians.

The image of the Jew in both secular and religious society has changed dramatically since those short films were made.

Rising to the festival's subtitle — "Independent Filmmakers Looking at Ourselves" — several young writers and directors tackle the identity issue in movies such as "Speak Easy: Five Shorts," "Dogs: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint" and "Saint Clara."

"Dogs," the closing-night film, is "an independent feature screwball comedy: a rarity in America, an act of heroism," Libresco said.

It tells the story of a 28-year-old Jewish woman living on New York's Lower East Side. Flat broke and unlucky in love, she convinces her "slacker" girlfriends to join her in a life of "disorganized crime" — i.e., opening a betting parlor in the heroine's tenement kitchen. A nice Jewish boy and bookie boss complete the love triangle subplot.

The characters are "rough, funny Jewish girls who want to make it," Libresco said.

The cinematic montage "Speak Easy: Five Shorts," though more serious, also explores identity, Libresco said. Its components probe "what it means to be an outsider and what it means to find one's place in Judaism."

In "Bad Jews in My Kitchen," lesbians sit around the breakfast table ruminating about living on the cultural fringe; in "Jewish Item," young Jewish Iraqis and Yemenites in Britain do the same.

"It's raw. It's mixed voices — Jewish dykes and hip-to-the-groove Brits talking about what they own and what they reformulate in Judaism," Libresco commented.

The Israeli film "Saint Clara," meanwhile, opens the festival in Berkeley and Palo Alto.

Filmmakers Uri Sivan and Ari Fulman have created a "quirky, futuristic and experimental" work based on a story written by Pavel and Yelena Kahout and banned in 1968 by the Czech government.

Clairvoyant Clara and her gender-bending friends turn conventional ideas of relationships on their heads. Kids become the confidants of teachers and parents amid the neon-lit streets of a futuristic Israeli society.

Love vs. supernatural power serves as a metaphor for the struggles of assimilation.

Other festival films, meanwhile, touch on themes that range from klezmer music to muckraking journalism, from the Holocaust to the lost history of Sephardim.

A free seminar at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 24 at the Castro will round out the season. Writers, filmmakers, directors and professors will address racism, immigration and assimilation in art during a panel discussion titled "Across the Great Divide: Immigration, the Arts and American Culture."

A grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission allowed the festival to revive its seminar series after a several-year hiatus. The Peninsula expansion is likewise supported by an award — an $11,000 seed grant from the South Peninsula Jewish Community Federation and Stanford's Jewish studies program — as well as more than $30,000 in donations from Peninsula residents.

Like other organizations suffering from slashed arts funding, however, the festival lost a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant this time around. The festival also budgeted for an a $53,000 NEA grant, but that one ended up on the cutting room floor.

"There was a sense of urgency this year," Plotkin said about fund-raising.

"We're glad we made it — we survived," Plotkin said. "Not everyone did."