Jewish film festival again a place to be together

The curtain came down on the 34th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Aug. 10, as the event’s 18-day run concluded with screenings at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

The festival’s three-day run at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland included 14 screenings … and a bit of controversy. photo/andy altman-ohr

The attendance this year was more than 35,000, according to festival officials, which included a 20 percent increase in Marin and Palo Alto. Still, the total was about 1,000 tickets shy of the record attendance of 36,000 reported last year.

There were 12 sellouts among this year’s 140 screenings in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Rafael, officials said. Eight films made their world premieres, and the number of full-festival passes sold was up about 10 percent over 2013.

“It was amazing,” summed up Lexi Leban, the festival’s executive director. “The festival was able to build new cultural bridges within and beyond the Jewish community.”

Films screened at eight venues around the Bay Area, and the San Francisco run was at the Castro Theatre for 11 days, rather than switching over to the JCC of San Francisco for a weekend as it had in the past.

Opening night at the Castro drew 1,124 to watch “The Green Prince,” an Israeli documentary about Mosab Hassan Yousef, who spied for Israel, and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben Yitzhak. The film’s two subjects surprised attendees by appearing for a Q&A session after the film.

Lining up outside the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the July 29 showing of “Run Boy Run” photo/barak shrama

Upon leaving the theater, some people headed over to the opening night bash at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “It was a really big hit,” Leban said. “I’m still hearing about the party at the CJM.”

A week later, actor Theodore Bikel was honored with the festival’s Freedom of Expression Award. The subject of that night’s film at the Castro, “Theodore Bikel: in the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem,” the 90-year-old received a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd of more than 1,000 when he performed on stage with his guitar.

The timing of the war in Gaza created travel problems, organizers said, as they worked to bring in more than 60 visiting filmmakers and artists from around the world. Leban said it took “heroic efforts” to get Israeli guests to the Bay Area at a time when many flights into and out of Ben Gurion Airport were banned.

In the midst of the conflict, the festival provided a respite for the Jewish community, Leban said.

“People’s emotions were heightened, but [the festival] gave people a place to laugh together, discuss and be together,” she said. “It’s interesting when you launch a film festival with … war in the Middle East, but people were incredibly respectful.”

One of the innovations this year was showing a Web series, the darkly comedic “Little Horribles,” which follows the poor decisions of a self-indulgent lesbian in New York City. The idea, Leban said, was to encourage discussion among audience members.

At AT&T Park on July 28, a nice plug for a film festival offering.

In addition to opening night, the Big Night Party at the Berkeley Rep — one of 10 special events during the festival — featured a film and food. After watching “Sturgeon Queens,” a documentary about the famed appetizing shop Russ & Daughters on New York’s Lower East Side, attendees devoured plates of smoked fish, gourmet cheeses and salads, and still managed to save room for the array of desserts from Oakland’s Grand Bakery.

What’s on the next reel? In February 2015, the SFJFF will host a winter festival, Leban said without providing details, and there is also online programming year-round at www.sfjff.org.

“We start [planning] in earnest in January and February,” Leban said of the 35th annual festival. “But we will begin again in the fall when we start going to festivals [around the world] and looking for new films.

Abra Cohen