Film fest director, Janis Plotkin, calls it a wrap after 21 years

Janis Plotkin has seen this happen more often than 99.9 percent of the world's population — but not anymore. A driving force behind the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival for 21 years and its executive director for the past eight, Plotkin has decided this year's festival will be her last.

Plotkin termed her move a "midlife shift" and added that the festival is "in a very strong position programmatically and administratively and it's a good time for me to step aside."

Like Victor Kiam — who proudly boasted he liked Remington razors so much he bought the company — Plotkin's involvement with the Jewish film festival started as a customer.

"The film that made me want to work at the Jewish film festival remains one of my favorites: "Image Before My Eyes" by Josh Waletzky. That film made me feel good about being a Polish Jew. I went to the first Jewish film festival at the Roxie and walked up to founding director Deborah Kaufman and I said, 'You know, we should work together.' And she said OK," recalled Plotkin, 50.

"The allure of the job, I think it has to do with how many of us as Jews have been damaged by negative stereotypes in the media, and some have internalized those stereotypes and feel bad about themselves as Jews. I was probably one of those people in a way."

Yet, after her first trip to the Jewish film fest in 1981, "I saw media representations of Jews I could relate to, they were authentic. It wasn't just images of Jews as victims of the Holocaust, which was the predominant media image, or negative stereotypes of Jewish mothers. It was very appealing to me to find movies that made us feel good about ourselves. The festival also became the place to discuss things we weren't able to discuss anywhere else."

Longtime friends and fellow film fest staff lauded Plotkin's ability to "stay independent," and show a wide variety of films despite political pressures. In doing so, she helped to create what "was essentially the biggest synagogue in the Bay Area," according to founding SFJFF board member Bill Chayes.

"In an area known for the assimilation of its Jewish community, she and Deborah created a phenomenon that really brought Jewish people back together in a way that then spread throughout the country and the world. This being the first Jewish film festival, they've started something that's now a major institution around the world. That's a really remarkable achievement," he continued.

Since the SFJFF's founding, 57 other Jewish film fests have popped up around the world. Serving 35,000 moviegoers a year, the SFJFF remains the largest.

"Filmmakers love to be in it. You're treated exceptionally well," continued Chayes, himself a documentary maker who has shown three films in the festival. The SFJFF "has become a central source of information for other Jewish film festivals in the world to look to for their programming, and I know personally that if you get a film in the festival, you get inquiries from every other Jewish film festival."

Associates weren't necessarily blown away by Plotkin's announcement earlier this week — as SFJFF Vice President Susie Coliver put it, "She's been working literally around the clock her whole adult life and she deserves a break" — but pondered how the fest would fare without Plotkin, whose name has grown synonymous with the SFJFF.

"It's daunting to think of the festival without Janis; she's so much been a part of it," said Anita Monga, the programmer for the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. "It was easy to work with Janis. She was committed to showing the best films and really opening the festival to the community. The Jewish film festival always did something really fabulous like free screenings, and a lot of older people came to those screenings. The festival always had a warm feeling, and also a very dialectic feeling to it."

A search for Plotkin's successor is currently under way, and Plotkin will retain her position until the end of the year.

Plotkin said marketing and outreach for independent films remain particular interests for her, and adds that "I have one more round left in me."

She believes her crowning achievement with the JFF came in 1990, when she and Kaufman took the festival on the road to Moscow. Coming in the heady days of perestroika, the festival marked the first public event of Jewish pride since the Russian Revolution.

Moscow's mayor attempted to cancel the festival three weeks before its scheduled March date, and the films were mysteriously delayed in customs. But high-ranking American and Soviet politicians such as James Baker and Eduard Shevardnadze pushed the festival through, and more than 60,000 Soviets attended the one-week show.

"Janis has been a strong public leader and cultural force. She's not only respected as a female director of a major Jewish organization, but well-respected in the film community as someone who really understands the arts and the needs of both film artists and the public," said Kaufman.

"So I can tell you, it's the Jewish community's loss."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.