black and white image of a bearded man and long-haired woman talking to each other, with two other women and an ox cart in the background
The restored 1919 silent film “Broken Barriers” focuses on Tevye’s daughter Khavah. (Photo/Courtesy National Center for Jewish Film)

S.F. Jewish Film Festival revs up at the drive-in (and on your couch)

With stay-home recommendations still in place, the summer of 2020 is going to feel slower than most. Home projects, home cooking and hanging with your homies are simply the safest things to do. But in the Bay Area, one anticipated summer event — the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — is still happening as a “reimagined experience.” At home, of course.

With its annual three-week summer festival postponed due to the pandemic, the Jewish Film Institute is instead offering Cinegogue Summer Days, a compact four days of nine films and an array of cinematic events on virtual platforms, with one notable exception: Opening night will take place at a drive-in theater.

Remember drive-ins? They more or less faded away in the ’70s, although some are still around. Turns out they are the ideal social distancing venue for watching films: Just bring your quarantine bubble with you!

“This was as close as we could get to a physically shared festival experience that at the same time allows for social distancing,” said JFI executive director Lexi Leban.

The opening-night films will be presented simultaneously July 16 at the West Wind Capitol Drive-In Theaters in Concord and San Jose. Both locations will screen the West Coast premiere of “On Broadway,” a music-and-dance-filled tribute to Broadway and the Jews who made it. Directed by Oren Jacoby, the film features theater luminaries such as Ian McKellen, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, James Earl Jones and Mandy Patinkin in a tribute to an all-American entertainment institution that is now facing unprecedented challenges.

Alternatively, a second screen in Concord will offer viewers another option, a new documentary by Bay Area filmmaker Abby Ginzberg about longtime local U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee. “Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me”  is a portrait of the East Bay congressional representative as a steadfast voice for human rights and progressive causes for over two decades.

Representing Oakland, Berkeley and other parts of the East Bay, Lee cast the lone vote against the broad authorization of military force following the Sept. 11 attacks. More recently, in response to the nationwide protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Lee has called for a congressional Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission to confront the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S. and propose ways forward. In this new film, award-winning filmmaker Ginzberg assembles interviews with leading contemporary figures, from Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. John Lewis to actor Danny Glover and author Alice Walker, who describe Lee’s qualities as an outstanding public servant and truth-telling African American woman.

The film is representing the SFJFF’s tradition of presenting a day of films intended to spur action for social justice, according to Leban. “We’re seeing this as our tikkun olam offering for this year,” she said.

All drive-in shows start at 8:30 p.m. Ticket prices are per car: $25 general and $22 for JFI members, and tickets must be purchased in advance. Check the important rules for drive-in attendees. Ticket-holders may arrive up to two hours ahead of showtime to picnic  — in their cars, of course.

The rest of the Cinegogue Summer Days program, running through July 19 over what would have been the festival’s 40th anniversary opening weekend, will take place online. The films are new or recent releases and all but one (“Broken Barriers”) are being offered for free. The program includes film screenings, interactive conversations,  performances and award presentations.

“The four-day showcase will shine a spotlight on all JFI programs, including those that support filmmakers and artists who offer stories of resilience and hope, as well as virtual screenings of some of the best new works,” said program director Jay Rosenblatt.

Of the nine films to be presented, six will be available to watch throughout the festival at the viewer’s convenience. For most films, however, the suggested showtimes include a live Q&A after the screening.

Certain to grab public interest is the West Coast premiere of “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” a timely documentary about Tamar Manasseh, a 41-year-old African American former rabbinical student who is leading the fight against gun violence on the South Side of Chicago. The film, which had its virtual premiere in late June through the Manhattan JCC’s online film program, explores her multifaceted identity, her challenges and motivations as she strives to put her Jewish values into action.

As she explained in a recent story in the Forward, where Manasseh writes a regular column, “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I wasn’t a Jew. Being Black tells you something should be done. Being Jewish tells you it can be done. Being human brings it together and it gets done. Jewish belief says ‘this is broken. I see that it’s broken. It’s for me to fix it.’ If I didn’t know that I am commanded to fix things I probably wouldn’t be doing it.”

The Bay Area’s Ilana Kaufman, director of the Jews of Color Initiative, will interview Manasseh following the noon screening on July 18. Although the talk is free, JFI recommends booking a ticket in advance.

Another highlight is the West Coast premiere of “Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is,” on July 18 at 2:30 p.m. Former film festival executive director Peter Stein will interview the San Francisco Symphony conductor and composer after the screening.

The Next Wave spotlight film “Shiva Baby” is a humorous feature about a young Jewish woman with a sugar daddy whose secret life takes an unexpected turn when she attends a shiva. It screens on July 17 at 6 p.m.

Not to be forgotten is the repeat screening of a deeply compelling feature film that sold out at last year’s festival, the Hungarian postwar drama “Those Who Remained.” The July 19 screening at 11:30 a.m. will be followed by a live, virtual conversation with filmmaker Barnabás Tóth and JFI programmer Joshua Moore.

The 1919 silent film “Broken Barriers (Khavah)” is one of three films with a one-time-only screening. Co-presented with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, it will be streamed at 6 p.m. on July 18, alongside a live performance of a commissioned score by Bay Area composer and multifaceted musician Sascha Jacobsen. JFI is calling the production an “ephemeral experience.”

The film, adapted from a story by Sholem Aleichem, focuses on the taboo relationship of Tevye the Dairyman’s youngest daughter, Khavah, with a non-Jew.

“It’s basically a whole silent film devoted to Khavah,” Rosenblatt said, noting its “unusually good inter-titles.”

Another film of note is “Irmi,”  a daughter’s tribute to her mother by award-winning Bay Area filmmaker Veronica Selver. Selver’s mother, Irmi Selver, was a German Jew who lived through the multiple upheavals of the First and Second World Wars, emigration and more. The film, whose script is derived from Irmi Selver’s memoir, portrays a woman of strength, resilience and unquenchable joie de vivre. This world premiere takes place on Friday, July 17 at 3 p.m., followed by a Q&A with the director.

Interactive events include a live Zoom challah bake with Marin County author and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain at 10 a.m. on July 17. Shlain has hosted a virtual challah bake with guests every Friday since the pandemic began. This event will feature comedian/Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El, along with the Challah Prince, a master baker from Berlin. No baking experience necessary: it’s an experience all on its own.

JFI also will take the opportunity to introduce its current slate of filmmakers in residence. On July 17 at 12:30 p.m., Nora Mariana, Theo Rigby, Eva Ilona Brzeski, Yoav Potash and Charene Zalis will present clips and trailers of the films they are working on and share insights into their creative process.

On July 19 at 2 p.m., New Yorker magazine television critic Emily Nussbaum joins former JFI senior programmer and film curator Caroline Libresco in a discussion of “Unruly Women: Jewish Female Characters on Television.”

On the closing night of the festival, the community is invited to the announcement of winners of JFI grants and film awards. This is the first year of the JFI grant program, and six applicants will receive funds to complete their films; they will also show clips from their works in progress.

All of the panels, discussions and awards ceremonies are free, with donations accepted.

Calling the short festival “a curated program of timeless and relevant films,” Leban asserted that “less is more” in JFI’s long weekend of film offerings, given the times we are living in.

See you at the drive-in!

For the complete lineup and tickets, go to jfi.org/summer-days.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.