From “Charlatan,” playing at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
From “Charlatan,” playing at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

S.F. Jewish film fest roars back into Castro — and online, too

If you’ve been waiting patiently for an opportunity to watch a movie in an actual theater again — remember those places, with the huge screens, comfy seats and strangers sitting right next to you? — this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival may be just the ticket.

The annual festival, presented by the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute, will have several in-person screenings at the Castro Theatre the weekend of July 24-25. And for those who aren’t ready to emerge from their Covid cocoons just yet, all but two of the films on those days — as well as the rest of the festival’s offerings — can be viewed online between July 22 and Aug. 1.

Last summer, the SFJFF was canceled due to Covid and replaced by a four-day schedule of virtual screenings and a drive-in event on opening night. “We are thrilled to be back at the Castro,” said JFI’s executive director, Lexi Leban.

Among the more than 50 films in this year’s lineup, nearly half were made by women directors and producers. The films explore several themes, including the ups and downs of being a teenager, life in Israel and the Palestinian territories, LGBTQI+ issues, literary figures and the music world.

Patrons using the JFI’s online screening room can view any film at any time during the 11-day event, but there’s also a schedule of suggested viewing dates and times to simulate a real festival experience.

The “opening night” and “closing night” films are Holocaust stories.

“Persian Lessons” is a narrative feature set in 1942 about a young Belgian man who avoids death in a concentration camp by claiming to be Persian, not Jewish. But when he is assigned to teach an SS officer how to speak Persian, he must invent the language without being exposed. The film, directed by Vadim Perelman, is making its U.S. premiere and will be shown in person only, at the Castro on July 24 at 8:15 p.m., to mark opening night.

“Misha and the Wolves,” which premiered at Sundance, is a documentary about Misha Defonseca, who published a best-selling memoir in 1997 about her incredible World War II experiences. She wrote about how, as a 7-year-old orphan, she was adopted by a pack of wolves who fed and protected her while she attempted to walk from Belgium to Germany — a story that raised suspicions, but not until after the book’s publication. The film, directed by Sam Hobkinson, plays at the Castro on July 25 at 6:45 p.m. and will be available online throughout the festival (organizers are recommending it for “virtual opening night” on July 22).

The Aug. 1 “virtual closing night” suggestion is “Plan A,” which stars Israeli actor Michael Aloni (of “Shtisel” fame) in a dramatized retelling of a real 1945 operation by Holocaust survivors who planned to poison the water system in Germany in an act of revenge.

JFI will present its Freedom of Expression Award, which honors “the unfettered imagination,” to Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. Best known in the United States for her Oscar-nominated films “Angry Harvest” (1985) and “Europa Europa” (1990), Holland also has directed episodes of several popular television shows, including “The Wire,” “Treme” and the U.S. version of “House of Cards.” Her newest film, “Charlatan,” a biopic of Czech healer Jan Mikolášek, will have its West Coast premiere during the festival, and she will participate in an online Q&A.

Other standout films in the lineup include “Prognosis: Notes on Living,” the last film by the late Oscar-winning Bay Area documentarian Debra Chasnoff; “The Adventures of Saul Bellow,” the first documentary about the Nobel Prize–winning novelist; “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” a “mystical meta-musical” about the infamous financier; “200 Meters,” a drama set in Israel and the Palestinian territories featuring Palestinian actor Ali Suliman; “The Conductor,” a documentary about Marin Alsop, who became the first woman to serve as the music director of several major orchestras; “The Light Ahead,” a newly restored 1939 film by Edgar G. Ulmer that is considered a classic example of prewar American Yiddish cinema; “Those Who Heard & Those Who Saw,” an experimental documentary about the experiences of Jewish refugees who were sent from Britain to live in internment camps in eastern Canada, and the Syrian refugees who were sent there decades later; “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” a profile of the pioneering Black and nonbinary attorney who argued landmark cases about race and gender; and “The Binding of Itzik,” a narrative short about a Hasidic bookbinder who becomes entangled with a stranger after responding to a BDSM ad on Craigslist.

In addition to these films, SFJFF will screen a six-episode television series, “Labyrinth of Peace,” in two parts. The series follows an industrial family dynasty in post-World War II Switzerland.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Online July 22 to Aug. 1. In-person July 24-25 at Castro Theatre, S.F., with limited capacity, masks required and theater cleared after each film. $15 online, $15-$25 in person, 10-film voucher pack $90-$130, streaming pass $195-$245.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.