Tending to the million little details involved in organizing the 32nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, executive director Lexi Leban and program director Jay Rosenblatt occasionally burned the midnight oil.
“I got emails from him asking me, ‘What are you doing up at 4 in the morning?’ ” says Leban. “I wrote back and said, ‘What are you doing up?’ ”
There may be a few more sleepless nights ahead as the clock winds down to the festival’s July 19 opening, but some of that may be due to excitement. This is, after all, Leban’s first festival as executive director.
Running through Aug. 6, the festival has grown by a day and will present more screenings than ever — 125 in seven Bay Area venues. There are 63 films from 12 countries, and some 30,000 people are expected to attend, according to film festival officials.
Venues include the Castro Theatre (July 19-26) and the JCC of San Francisco (July 28-29), Berkeley’s Roda Theatre (July 28-Aug. 4), the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael (Aug. 4-6) and CineArts in Palo Alto (July 28-Aug. 2).
In the East Bay, there are two new venues: Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, for a single day of screenings on Aug. 6 (the last day of the festival), and a free 8 p.m. outdoor screening Aug. 3 at Oakland’s Art Murmur, a popular event that features gallery art, live music and food trucks.
The Art Murmur screening, projected on the massive outdoor Great Wall of Oakland on West Grand near Broadway, will feature some of the festival’s short films, including a new one from Bay Area filmmaker Tiffany Shlain.
This year, a sizeable number of films have to do with music. They include both opening- and closing-night offerings, which for the first time in festival history happen to be documentaries.
“Music brings everybody together, breaks down barriers and allows celebration,” Leban says, “so we’re happy it emerged this year.”
“Hava Nagila (The Movie),” which opens the festival, follows the history of everyone’s favorite Jewish party song, from its Ukrainian roots to its Israeli reincarnation and finally its place as a Jewish wedding and b’nai mitzvah staple.
The Castro Theatre closing-night offering (which will screen at other locations afterward) is “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” a rollicking documentary about a Brooklyn-born Jew hobbled by childhood polio, who went on to write some of the greatest songs in pop history. They include “This Magic Moment,” “Teenager in Love” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Other music films include “Gypsy Davy,” about a woman getting to know her flamenco guitar-playing absentee father; “God’s Fiddler,” the story of classical violinist Jascha Heifetz (which will be screened for free); and “Ben Lee: Catch My Disease,” a documentary about an Australian Jewish former pop star navigating his post-wunderkind life.
There’s also “Under African Skies,” celebrating the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s album “Graceland.” Simon returns to South Africa for a reunion concert, and the film also addresses controversial aspects of his initial visit to apartheid-era South Africa.
Simon “broke the cultural boycott of South Africa,” Rosenblatt says, “and he got a lot of flak for it. But he felt he was opening South Africa to the world. I left this film feeling exhilarated.”
The festival’s 2012 Freedom of Expression Award will go to actor Elliott Gould, who broke out big in the late 1960s and early ’70s with starring roles in Robert Altman films (“M.A.S.H.,” “The Long Goodbye”) and the Oscar-nominated “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
Gould, 73, is still a busy Hollywood actor, having appeared recently in “Contagion” and “Dorfman” (the latter being one of the festival’s offerings this summer). Gould will be interviewed onstage before the “Dorfman” screening July 22 at the Castro.
Gould “personified the spirit of the times,” says Leban, “and was considered a member of the ‘Jew wave,’ along with Woody Allen and George Segal. He’s a maverick, an anti-hero going against the stereotype.”
Another big “get” for the festival is popular children’s author Judy Blume. “Tiger Eyes” is the first of her books to be turned into a film — thanks to her son, Lawrence Blume, who directs. It’s in the lineup, as is Blume herself. It will screen only once, July 22, at the Castro.
The hip indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom (“Eating,” “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?”) will be on hand to introduce his new film, “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway,” as will the film’s star, Judd Nelson. The movie, which screens July 25 at the Castro, touches on the intersection of Yiddish theater and family drama.
Israeli films on the schedule include “Ameer Got His Gun,” a documentary about an Arab who serves in the Israel Defense Forces; the Sundance award-winning drama “Restoration”; and the searing documentary “The Flat,” about the filmmaker’s chance discovery of a lifelong friendship between his German-born Jewish grandparents and a high-level Nazi official.
The festival also will screen episodes from the third season of the hit Israeli sitcom “Arab Labor.”
Not surprisingly, the majority of festival films come from Israel and the United States, though France has several in the mix as well.
They include this year’s centerpiece film, “The Other Son,” about an Arab child and a Jewish child switched at birth who discover the truth later in life. It screens one time only, July 24, at the Castro. Another is “The Day I Saw Your Heart,” which Rosenblatt calls “a very quirky father-daughter story.”
Making its California premiere is “Broken,” a French film set in a tough Paris school, where Muslim immigrant children clash with Jewish students. The final French offering, “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” tells the story of an Israeli girl who befriends a Gaza boy after “meeting” him via message in a bottle.
“They struggle to see each other as human,” says Leban. “It has some Romeo and Juliet aspects but it ends up being realistic.”
Two more on the schedule are the West Coast premiere of “Invisible,” an Israeli feature co-written and directed by San Francisco State University alumnus Michal Aviad that explores the aftermath of sexual violence, and the world premiere of “Besa: The Promise,” a documentary about Albanian Muslims who saved Jews during World War ll.
Leban and Rosenblatt tout a few other outside-the-box offerings. Among them is Date Night with JDate, on July 21, which involves a screening of “The Day I Saw Your Heart” at the Castro and drinks afterward at a wine bar across the street.
Also scheduled is an Aug. 4 brunch at U.C. Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, where a screening of “Seymour,” a filmed tribute to the late Magnes founder Seymour Fromer, will take place.
Of course there will be the opening- and closing-night bashes. The former, which follows the screening of “Hava Nagila,” will see the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco transformed into a bar mitzvah-like extravaganza, complete with live band and hora dancing.
Closing night takes place at the Castro, with live rock ’n’ roll following the “A.K.A. Doc Pomus” screening.
Leban will be there, of course, partying with the best of them.
She has brought a new energy to the festival, according to Rosenblatt. “She doesn’t realize what’s impossible,” he says. “It’s refreshing because you realize, hey, maybe it is possible.”
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 19-Aug. 6. (415) 621-0523, www.sfjff.org
cover illustration/cathleen maclearie