The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in now something of a misnomer on three counts. The nearly-three-weeks of screenings unspooled in nine locations splayed all over the Bay Area, including Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael. The program includes other events in addition to films: parties, panel discussions, concerts, and this year a special "multi-platform media" storytelling event. The title of this year's festival, "Life Through a Jew(ish) Lens," indicated that this year the programmers included films where one might be hard-pressed to discern the overtly Jewish content -- examples include "After Tiller," the powerful documentary about third-trimester abortion providers, and another documentary, "The Trials of Muhammed Ali," about the Supreme Court ruling on Muhammed Ali's conscientious objector status in the Vietnam war, where the program notes "No, Muhammed Ali is not Jewish. But certain films when placed in a Jewish context inspire truly Jewish conversation."
I don't care why a movie is programmed as long as I'm happy to see it. And for years I've considered the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival to be one of the best-programmed film events of the year. It suits my stereotype of the warm, haimishe Jewish grandma, setting a lavish buffet and urging you to try just a little more. It has a great track record in getting filmmakers to attend, insuring interesting introductions and lively q-and-a's after screenings. (More than one filmmaker noted the audience's proclivity to shout out opinions and corrections.) I'm especially prone to attend it because it's my father's favorite film festival, so I'm guaranteed an interested companion -- no matter how much you love movies, it gets old watching them all day long all by yourself.
We saw about thirty of the 74 films (from 17 countries), mostly chosen by ease of location (the East Bay venues, the California Theatre in Berkeley, and the Grand Lake Theater and Piedmont Theater in Oakland) and time -- we favored the matinees, thereby largely turning the Jewish Film Festival into the Jewish Documentary Film Festival, as it seemed that most of the daytime screenings were docs.
Not that I'm complaining. I had more than one cathartic experience caused by documentaries this year. I was completely engrossed and emotionally engaged by "Here One Day," about the suicide of director Kathy Leichter's mother, using her mother's audiotapes and writings, which was brilliantly paired with a witty and moving short, "I Think This is Closest to How the Footage Looked," about how 8mm footage of a woman's final moments was inadvertently erased. Alain Berliner's "First Cousin Once Removed" (showed as part of the program awarding him the Freedom of Expression Award), a patchwork of footage shot of a celebrated poet and professor as he succumbed to Alzheimer's was powerful and disturbing.