Italy's Andrews Sisters: 'Tulip Time,' about an Italian trio in the '30s, plays the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this year. (Photo courtesy SFJFF)

S.F. Jewish Film Festival's Stein and Fishman

Michael Fox July 21, 2008

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has never, in its 28 years, taken the path of least resistance. To cite the most obvious example, a hallmark of the annual program is the inclusion of several films critical of Israel. (That these movies are almost always produced by Israeli filmmakers, and financed by government grants, is irrelevant to the fest’s critics.) This year’s contrarian act is increasing the number of films and screenings in the face of a spiraling economy. The expanded lineup includes spotlights on Italian Jews During Fascism and Diversity In Israel (a multicultural, gay-straight portrait of Israel on its 60h anniversary), along with salutes to doc-making brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann and home-movie excavator par excellence Péter Forgács. The SFJFF opens Thursday with Strangers, Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv’s lusty, improvised tale of an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman hooking up in Berlin during the 2006 World Cup, and continues through Aug. 11 at the Castro Theatre. The lineup, including the Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Rafael schedules, is at SFJFF’s website. Executive director Peter Stein and program director Nancy Fishman spilled the beans in their office in the Ninth Street Independent Film Center.

SF360: Identity-oriented film festivals sprung up to show images and representations different than those peddled by Hollywood and television. 28 years on, how do you see the mission or purpose of the Jewish Film Festival?

Peter Stein: That’s a big one. I still think it performs something of that function. Stereotypes are still way too easy to find; they’re prevalent in mainstream media. So a culturally specific festival like ours is there to provide antidotes and counter images. That said, I think the mission has gotten more complex as the community has become more complex. People who come to the Jewish Film Festival now wear multiple hats, many identities, so it’s our responsibility now to provide and complicate the image of what is a Jewish film. So it’s not only about reflecting some kind of counter image to what’s out there, but it’s also proactively to look for, comment on, celebrate and question the multiple identities that people in our community, and our audiences, tend to affiliate with.

Nancy Fishman: A lot of the things like panels [and] special sidebars provide an opportunity for a community to get together and learn something. And I think there’s something almost inherently Jewish about that. When we as a community sit in the Castro Theatre and learn together what happened to Italian Jews under the racial laws [Volevo Solo Vivere, Tulip Time], or about diversity in Israel Jerusalem is Proud to Present, there’s something very empowering. That’s not usually what happens when you just go and watch a movie. You have an opportunity to go into depth on certain subjects. You hear about stuff going on on the West Bank on CNN, but how often do you have an opportunity to meet Jewish activists and Palestinian villagers Bilin, My Love and see what they’re really going through? Granted, an hour-and-a-half documentary is not the same as being there. But it’s certainly much more of an opportunity to sit with and visit with and try on someone else’s point of view.

SF360: I was amazed when you told me the number of fest attendees who aren’t Jewish.

Stein: We found fairly consistently, since we started doing audience surveys about eight years ago, that upwards of 30 percent of our audience every year doesn’t identify as Jewish. They’re either coming with folks who do have an interest in Jewish life, or more often than not it’s folks who are interested in good international or American independent cinema. That says something about the Bay Area audience, that people know that festivals are a place where they’re going to see films and engage in conversations they won’t otherwise get. It also says something about our programming, and about Jewish life in particular. Jewish life and Jewish culture, Jewish humor and Jewish questions, are universal. They don’t only speak to a specific experience of a specific ethnic group. It’s pervasive in the culture, and what we get to do for these 18 days is focus the lens a little bit so that something comes sharply into view. ‘Ah, that’s right, there’s a certain brand of American humor that is, in fact, Jewish.’ Or ‘There’s a certain experience of wartime, or fascism in Europe, that is Jewish but that reflects and deepens our understanding, whether we count ourselves Jewish or not.’

Fishman: We’re doing a program on Italian Jews during fascism at this particular time that Italy is experiencing a resurgence of right-wing politics and anti-immigrant sensibility. It’s interesting right now to look at how this past experience resonates for Italians, whether they are Jewish or not, and for contemporary Americans. I also want to echo that the festival shows high-quality films. Different community festivals operate with different guidelines. Some do what I would call kitchen-sink programming, and that can be great. This festival has always wanted to present films that are by and about the community but also strong as films. Anvil, an amazing documentary, or Facing Windows in the Italian program, are world-class films.

Stein: We grew the program by 30 percent this year, with 70 films. Even so, we programmed barely 10 percent of what we looked at. We saw, considered or had submitted upwards of 600 films [including shorts] this year. Even though we’re excited about the explosion of Jewish-subject cinema and filmmakers addressing Jewish themes, we’re still a very tightly curated festival. We have to grow it even to show the ones that we’re excited to curate.

SF360: Israeli cinema is on a roll, with a string of prizes at major international festivals in the last year. What’s responsible for this sustained level of quality?

Fishman: About 10 years ago, the Israeli government started putting money into various film funds. The government itself started giving grants to filmmakers. What a novel idea! Some of what you’re seeing is reaping the benefits of that. It’s also a very complex society. I can single out [in our program] the close-up on Barak and Tomer Heymann, brothers who are doing high-quality documentaries. They are focusing on people on the fringe of Israeli society, whether it’s artists [Out of Focus, Dancing Alfonso], Filipino drag queen guest workers Paper Dolls or people who send their children to bilingual Hebrew-Arabic language schools Bridge Over the Wadi. There are things as an American Jew that we embrace about Israel and things that we don’t like. What’s exciting about Israeli filmmakers is that they are less afraid than Jews outside of the country to engage with what’s going on and to explore the complicated moral issues that come from being a country that was founded by survivors of the Holocaust to being a country engaged in a struggle with another people.

SF360: The festival has long had a reputation for progressiveness, which has not always endeared it to the Jewish establishment. In that vein, let’s talk about the LGBT films.

Stein: Some of it is risk-taking, but some of it is our responsibility to reflect the themes and tendencies and interests of independent Jewish filmmakers around the world. We thought hard about how to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel. Unlike the mainstream festivals, it’s not news for us to program a bunch of Israeli films. Last year, nearly 50 percent of our programming was from Israel. And that was the 59th anniversary, which is not one of those landmark anniversaries. (Laughter.) What bubbled up, almost organically out of the films we were looking at, were voices of and views on political and cultural and social diversity. Israel can be a place that is easy and very welcoming for gays and lesbians. And it also has social struggles in being, in part, a religious state with a strong fundamentalist Jewish/Christian/Muslim influence, particularly in Jerusalem. We thought among the many stories we have from other elements of the Israeli social spectrum—Palestinians, Arabs, black Bedouins, Russians, Ashkenazi, Sephardic—we would give a special focus on [LGBT] issues.

Fishman: The world has changed so much in San Francisco that there’s an LGBT Alliance of the Jewish Community Federation. If you had told me when I was in Sunday school at age nine in 1970 that there would be an LGBT section of the Federation, I would have told you that there were swimming pools on Mars. The mainstream Jewish community in many ways has embraced lesbians and gays. They have a little ways to go to catch up with the queer community in terms of embracing the full spectrum of queer life, but still. We have The Secrets by Avi Nesher, an Israeli man—I have no idea what his sexuality is—about two women who go into an Orthodox seminary and fall in love. It’s a hot, sexy film that also manages to explore complex issues of women’s relationship to the Torah and to their religious identity. It captures that age when young people are especially susceptible to a kind of religious fervor.

SF360: Based on all the work you looked at in the last year, how do you assess the American Jewish experience at this point in time?

Stein: American Jewish life is more complex than most people want to give it credit for. Particularly young people who affiliate as Jewish often also affiliate or identify in multiple communities. In the Bay Area, one out of seven households that names itself as Jewish is an interracial household. Not just interfaith, but interracial. So the whole construction of Jewish identity in the U.S. is complicated. A filmmaker named Joanna Resnick, age 29, found that she carried a troubling gene among Ashkenazi women that predisposes her to develop very serious cancer. In the Family is a science and medical issue documentary, and it’s also an exploration of part of her Jewish heritage. The flip side of this kind of multiple identity is that the default position for many artists who are Jewish or interested in Jewish life is simply to explore the superficial aspects of Jewish culture—entertainment, mass media, jokes about their Jewish moms or holiday observances. There can be a surface aspect to American cinema that deals with Jewish themes which makes it sometimes difficult to say, ‘What is this actually saying about the role of Jewish life in America today?’ That’s a question particularly when we look at more mainstream films.

Fishman: I don’t think there is a unified American Jewish experience. If you’re a Lubavitcher in Borough Park or a queer rabbi in Los Angeles, your experiences are really, really different. The American Jewish experience is as diverse as the experience of any ethnic group in this country. What I’ve observed as a programmer is that art is an important part of American Jewish identity. Trying to understand the culture through paintings or humor or television or film is intrinsic.

Stein: When we go to Sundance or Toronto or wherever, there are often films that [have] an essential character who’s Jewish. The Wackness, right now, is a delightful film set in the ’90s in New York, and the lead character certainly is meant to be Jewish but he didn’t have to be. It would be fun to show that to our audience because it’s a very good film. Would it deepen anyone’s understanding of what it meant to be a Jewish teenager in 1993 in New York? Probably not. Whereas Anvil, a heavy metal doc, a delightful behind-the-scenes, practically a mockumentary but it’s not—Jewish high school kids in 1979 form a band and stick to their guns, and roses, by continuing to play through financial and artistic hardship into their 50s, and occasionally comment on the support that their families have given them—is clearly Jewish enough. We’re proud to show it as a wonderful music and reality documentary as well as a kind of oblique comment on North American Jewish life.

Fishman: I want to mention Paula Weiman-Kelman’s Eyes Wide Open, a film about the relationship between American Jews and Israel. It really goes from the spectrum of left to right. If you wanted to see the American Jewish experience on the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel, this is the film to see.

SF360: In conclusion, could you say a few words about the evolving role of film festivals in the distribution landscape?

Stein: We’re seeing a bifurcation in the market. Very marketable, releasable films are getting harder for festivals like ours to secure because of the dwindling theatrical market. Festivals are seen simply as an additional revenue stream for these films. That said, there’s such a proliferation of good filmmaking that festivals are still providing a matchmaking service between good storytellers and hungry audiences, and it’s a critical service. There’s no way, with the proliferation of media theatrically—on television, cable, on the Internet—for people to filter for themselves what’s going to be a valuable experience. And beyond the curatorial process is the notion that you are going to be coming together in a group or community setting to find other people who are interested in arguing the same thing.

Fishman: The whole 500-channel video on demand, downloadable films world has changed how we consume media. But I think festivals are around to stay. Our fellow programmers exchange notes about how festivals are having to pay more to get films, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. There’s a limit to what we can pay; we’re not a theatrical distributor. But as theatrical outlets diminish, if people want a curated festival where you’re going to see high-quality films, people should be willing to put their money down and know that they’re going to support Jewish film or Latino film or whatever. This festival has always had a policy of either flying in guests or paying [to show their film]. It may be a really modest fee. It’s not going to get them enough money to produce their next film. We’re part of the cottage economy. We’re the independent film cottage economy. (Laughter.) We’re like the organic farms of the filmmaking world. Get to know your farmer!