Panel hashes out films role in getting all sides to talk

The mood was calm, serene even. Not what you’d expect from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival after the year it had, right?

About 200 people turned out for a recent midday panel discussion that asked: Can film help us talk — really talk — about Israel?

During the 90-minute event July 30 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the audience was quiet and respectful. Those who had questions wrote them down on notecards, and moderator Ellen Schneider selected which of the questions to pose to the panel. Schneider is  a former PBS producer and founder of the S.F.-based nonprofit Active Voice, which helps filmmakers use their work to create social change and conversation.

“This is an effort to move forward in a constructive fashion — not to rehash last year but to discuss how film can create dialogue,” said film festival director Peter Stein, referring to the community’s response to the 2009 screening of “Rachel,” a documentary about an American activist who died in Gaza.

Moderator (from left) Ellen Schneider with panelists Ronit Avni, Lisa Gossels, and Ari Y. Kelman photo/alison cartwright/sfjff

Two filmmakers on the panel were Lisa Gossels, director of the documentary “My So-Called Enemy,” about the impact of a coexistence program on a group of Palestinian and Israeli teenage girls; and Ronit Avni, founder of the nonprofit production company Just Vision, which makes films (including this year’s entry, “Budrus”) about under-documented Palestinian and Israeli civilian efforts to resolve the conflict nonviolently.

After the audience was shown clips from both films, Schneider began reading the questions. Many were about a film festival’s responsibility to set programming and seek balance in its lineup.

“Most people don’t want to see a movie about a place or family where everything is great — it’s boring,” Avni said. “Artists in general go where there is pain, difficulty, contradiction, and that’s where they weigh in as artists … so if you’re looking for a movie with a beautiful depiction of Israel, you’re probably not going to find it because film doesn’t lend itself to that.”

Gossels agreed, and added that audience reaction to a film depends on individual perspectives. “I work so hard to make a balanced film — but it won’t be balanced for everyone,” she said.

Ari Y. Kelman, a U.C. Davis American studies professor who also conducts social research on Jewish trends and demographics, added, “If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, then a film festival is doing its job.”

Panelist Rachel Eryn Kalish, founder of the intra-Jewish dialogue program Project Reconnections, suggested that film festivals should provide space for people to have pre- or post-film discussions to diffuse heated reactions.

Ultimately, she’d like to see the diverse Bay Area Jewish community welcome, respect and honor all opinions within it, so that divergent views don’t become divisive.

“But that responsibility should not be on the shoulders of filmmakers,” Avni countered. “Our responsibility is to tell a really powerful story, to tell a story of truth … we’re never going to please everyone.”

The audience mingled in the lobby and outside the theater after the talk concluded. Views seemed to be mixed on whether the panel served its purpose.

“It was unfortunate that it was buried in the middle of a workday and not done in conjunction with both films,” said Rita Cahn, who has been coming to the festival since the 1980s. “I think it’d be good for the festival to incorporate dialogue into its programming,” she added.

Ron Feldman of Berkeley came specifically for the panel discussion. “But I don’t feel I got a lot out of it,” he said.

Over the years, he’s heard people talk about SFJFF films in line or at nearby cafés, but because those talks are among like-minded friends, people aren’t necessarily encountering an opinion that conflicts with their own.

“The idea of having dialogue is good and films can be a catalyst,” he said, “but I’m not sure I’ve been enlightened as to how we can do that.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.