Alessandro Gassmann (right) in “Thou Shalt Not Hate.”
Alessandro Gassmann (right) in “Thou Shalt Not Hate.”

WinterFest brings new Jewish cinema home for a long weekend

How many movies can you fit into 96 hours, if you really love contemporary Jewish film?

The answer is more than a dozen online — plus one at the Fort Mason drive-in — according to the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute, which will present its annual winter blast of cinema Feb. 25-28.

The eighth annual WinterFest will be a mostly virtual event, but will also include the West Coast premiere of the World War II–era thriller “Six Minutes to Midnight” at Fort Mason Flix.

Described as a “Hitchcockian homage to British spy cinema,” the movie, set to arrive in U.S. cinemas later this year, will be shown at 8 p.m. Feb. 25 at a ticket price of $50 per carload, with a discount for JFI members. The 99-minute film stars Dame Judi Dench and comedian-turned-actor Eddie Izzard.

The other films — all of them new — will stream online for four days, offering enough variety to guiltlessly glue you to your couch. There are seven documentaries, six narrative films and one program of works-in-progress by this year’s JFI filmmaker grant recipients.

Some of the documentaries are about well-known people, such as the late, great Czech film director Miloš Forman (“Forman vs Forman”) and the Jewish pop star Tiny Tim (“Tiny Tim: King for a Day). Forman, a key figure in the new-wave films coming out of Europe in the 1960s who went on to direct the Oscar-winning “Amadeus,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and many other Hollywood films, had family ties to the Holocaust and, as he learned as an adult, a biological father who was Jewish.

Some are about people less well known but equally intriguing, such as an Orthodox man who’s a super successful plastic surgeon and shows his operations live on Snapchat (“They Call Me Dr. Miami”) and a middle-age criminal defense attorney, mixed martial arts devotee and momma’s boy who is still trying to get over being bullied as a kid (“Harley”).

A double documentary program includes the 54-minute “9th Circuit Cowboy: The Long, Good Fight of Harry Pregerson” preceded by the 31-minute “A Father’s Kaddish.” The former film is a world premiere about the mensch who sat on the S.F.-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for 50 years; the latter is a moving account of a ceramicist whose response to the loss of his son to cancer was to make a new Japanese tea bowl on his pottery wheel every day for a year.

Another documentary is the anticipated “Til Kingdom Come,” a hard-hitting examination of the Christian evangelical movement’s fervent support for the State of Israel. The 76-minute film focuses on the Binghams, a dynasty of pastors, and their evangelical congregants in a Kentucky coal-mining town who fervently believe the Jews are crucial to Jesus’ return.

Russian-born Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein, who released the film in 2020 with the aid of a JFI grant, was able to get access to key sources that enabled her to connect the dots between the faithful of rural Kentucky, certain government figures in Washington, the moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem and an annexation plan for the West Bank.

Lexi Leban, executive director of JFI, said, “The film spotlights the connection between Zionists and American evangelicals, revealing a lot about the Republican Party and the relationship between the Trump and Netanyahu administrations, and sheds light on an apocalyptic-messianic world view that serves them both.”

The lineup of fiction films includes one starring Israeli actor Shira Haas, who became a burgeoning star as a teen in the Israeli TV drama “Shtisel” and then a household name for her performance as an escapee from Brooklyn’s Orthodox community in the Netflix series “Unorthodox.” Fans have eagerly awaited her appearance in the feature film “Asia,” which is something of an exclusive offering, as it will be geoblocked and available only to viewers in the Bay Area.

The winner of the Israeli Ophir Award for best picture last year, “Asia” is an understated mother-daughter drama in which Haas gets a chance to play a dying girl. The lovely, Russian-born actress Alena Yiv plays her mother, a nurse, who finds ways to breach the blockade of Haas’ teenage anger to stand by her, with love, all the way to the end. The film is in Hebrew and Russian with English subtitles.

The timely Italian drama “Thou Shall Not Hate” (“Non Odiare”) is also intense. In Italian and Polish with English subtitles, it is about an Italian surgeon, the son of a Holocaust survivor, who is tested when he must choose whether to save a critically injured neo-Nazi.

On the lighter side, “Summer of ’85” is a romantic drama from France by auteur François Ozon that traces the development of a summer relationship between two young men on the coast of Normandy. Part of JFI’s Next Wave Spotlight aimed at the under-35 crowd, the film is described as a mix of “camp, queerness and thriller elements” that “perfectly captures the era.” (The 1980s soundtrack may even inspire some viewers to get up off the couch and dance.)

Cinephiles likely will be interested in the “Filmmaker Residency Showcase,” in which members of the JFI’s 2021 cohort will discuss their works-in-progress and present clips and trailers. The suggested viewing time for the panel is 12 p.m. Feb. 27, but the session will be pre-recorded and can be seen (for free with RSVP) at any time during the festival.

In fact, the online blurbs include a “suggested streaming time” for every film, but that’s only to help create the sense of a synchronized, community festival experience. Any film can be streamed at any time between 12:01 a.m. Feb. 25 and 11:59 p.m. Feb. 28, and most will be followed by recorded interviews with the director(s) and/or principal actors.

Tickets for individual films are $15, with a $5 discount for JFI members. An all-festival pass is $90 for the public and $65 for members; it does not include the drive-in event. For schedule and tickets, visit jfi.org/winterfest-2021.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.