black and white image of an enormous crowd. some people are holding up a banner that says "their fight is our fight"
From the documentary “Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance,” the opening night film of the 2020 Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.

Silicon Valley Jewish film fest opens in your living room with doc about Black-Jewish relations

If ever there was a moment to screen a powerful new film about Black-Jewish relations in America, it is now. And the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival has stepped up, choosing just such a film to open the virtual event on Aug. 23.

“Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance” is a 2020-released documentary that recalls the intertwined histories of Jewish and African Americans in the struggle for civil rights and against hate.

Packed with archival material, interviews and testimonies from civil rights giants such as Harry Belafonte (and daughter Gina), Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, the late Rep. John Lewis, and a number of rabbis and scholars, the new film makes the case that the struggle is a burden hoisted on the shoulders of both communities.

Rabbi Everett Gendler, 92, states the obligation in halachic terms. “We all know that the Exodus is the central narrative of our redemption — and here is a modern situation. Should we do nothing?”

“It’s about our humanity,” activist Gina Belafonte says in the film. “If we don’t figure out a way to truly work together, we’ll just be like hamsters on a wheel.”

The 95-minute film, which is in English but also includes English subtitles, will go online Aug. 23 at 6 p.m. and — like all of the films in the 2020 SVJFF — will remain available to ticket holders for the next 48 hours. Following the screening, viewers can watch a recorded panel discussion including director Shari Rogers, executive producer Lisa Weitzman and Clarence B. Jones, who was a counsel and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. Rabbi Dana Magat of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose will be the moderator. Rogers is the president and founder of Spill the Honey, a nonprofit aimed at advancing public knowledge about the Holocaust and civil rights movement.

Going virtual was a big decision for the festival, now in its 29th year. Originally scheduled for late October at theaters, the festival now will run online from Aug. 23 through Labor Day weekend, ending Sept. 7.

“Our first priority is to ensure that our audience members are safe,” festival director Tzvia Shelef said in a press statement. “Our audience will be able to view all 21 films virtually from the safety and comfort of their homes.”

The festival will be able to pull off the new format, and survive the financial hardships caused by the pandemic, after receiving a new two-year sponsorship from the Koret Foundation, Shelef said. “Many other people have also helped us,” she told J. Like a traditional festival, many of the films will be followed by discussions (in this case on Zoom) with commentators, directors and others.

One film of local interest is “Pollywood,” a 90-minute documentary that explores how Hollywood was created out of the ambitions and aspirations of an earlier generation of Polish Jewish immigrants.

The screening at 8 p.m. Aug. 26 also will include a recorded post-film talk by Tad Taube, founder of Taube Philanthropies, and Shana Penn, the foundation’s executive director and a scholar of modern Polish history. Taube, who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland as a child, has his own personal Hollywood story, as he was a child actor in a 1942 MGM short about a Polish boy making friends with some American youth.

“Pollywood” is one of two films in which tickets are available exclusively to festival patrons (those who have donated between $250 and $20,000). The other is the thriller “Incitement,” the 2019 winner of Israel’s Ophir Award for best picture.

Must-see films in the public lineup include biographical documentaries such as “Golda” (Meir, of course), “Menachem Begin: Peace and War,” “Ben Gurion, Epilogue” and “Mrs. G,” about Lea Gottlieb, the founder of the Gottex line of swimwear.

“The Rabbi from Hezbollah” tells the true story of a Lebanese farmer who, through calamity, conscience and choice, ended up an Israeli spy. “I wanted to understand the motives, the choices, the psychology of a man whose life story sounds totally unbelievable,” said young Israeli director Itamar Chen, who will be in discussion with actress Sharon Ashkenazi after the 7 p.m. Sept. 2 screening.

Other categories include wartime romances (the highly recommended Hungarian postwar drama “Those Who Remained” and “An Irrepressible Woman”), contemporary romances (“The Art of Waiting” and “Standing Up, Falling Down” with Billy Crystal), music-related dramas (“Crescendo” and “God of the Piano”) and sports-centric films (“The Keeper” and “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel”).

The festival will close on a humorous note at 6 p.m. Sept. 7 with the Argentine comedy “My Amazing Funeral.” Yes, a funny funeral — and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The schedule, tickets and other details (including subtitle information and directions on how to watch the films on various devices) are available at svjff.org. All movies and post-film talks will be available for viewing for 48 hours after the posted start time.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

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