43rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Presented by the Jewish Film Institute, Wraps 16 Days of Thought-Provoking, Groundbreaking Films and Joyful Community Events

Jewish Film Institute
14 min readAug 10, 2023
Photo 1: Local filmmaker H.P. Mendoza smiles with fans at the West Coast Premiere of The Secret Art of Human Flight at the Castro Theatre during SFJFF43. Photo by Pat Mazzera. Photo 2: The Fillmore Jazz Ambassadors with Klezmer artists David Hardiman and Asaf Ophir lead a procession following the World Premiere of Rabbi on the Block. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

SFJFF43 Welcomes Dozens of Local, National, and International Filmmakers to the Festival; Festival Award Winners and Completion Grantees Announced

The Jewish Film Institute’s (JFI) 43rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), the longest-running event of its kind, wrapped 16 days of exhilarating live cinema in the San Francisco Bay Area on Sunday, August 6 with a final day of screenings at Landmark’s Piedmont Theatre in Oakland, following successful, bustling runs at the Castro Theatre and Vogue Theater in San Francisco. Audiences of all backgrounds delighted in SFJFF’s curated program of screenings and special events, which celebrated Jewish diversity and creativity on screen, and connected filmmakers and audiences through the power of independent Jewish cinema.

The SFJFF43 Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature went to March ’68, Krzysztof Lang’s exploration of two young students who meet and fall in love in the midst of social turmoil and Jewish discrimination in 1960’s Warsaw. In a tie, the SFJFF43 Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature was split between Brad Rothschild’s Rabbi on the Block and Sam Eilertsen and Eric Axelman’s Israelism.

A documentary from the perspective of young American Jews questioning their community’s unconditional support for Israel, Israelism sold out screenings in both San Francisco and Oakland, and was followed by a lively Q&A at the Vogue with directors Eilertsen, Axelman and participants Gilli Getz and Sarah Anne Minkin. Rabbi on the Block explores Tamar Manasseh’s journey to become the first female rabbi in her religious community, while fighting against gun violence and building bridges between Black and Jewish communities in Chicago. The World Premiere screening and Q&A with Rothschild and Manasseh was immediately followed by a musical second line procession, led by the Fillmore Jazz Ambassadors and Klezmer musician David Hardiman and Asaf Ophir, who guided attendees to the nearby Jewish Community Center of San Francisco for Soul Vey Havdalah: a Black & Jewish Collaborative, co-presented with Value Culture and the JCCSF. This joyous community celebration of Black-Jewish unity included a Havdalah (Shabbat closing) ritual led by Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El, and was hosted by Value Culture’s Adam Swig and the San Francisco Standard’s Meaghan Mitchell.

Rabbi on the Block participant Tamar Manasseh and director Brad Rothschild outside the Vogue Theater. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

SFJFF43 presented a total of sixty-seven feature-length and short films from eighteen countries that explored Jewish history, and life around the world, including three World, three North American, five United States, and eleven West Coast Premieres. Beginning just after SAG-AFTRA joined WGA guild members on strike, SFJFF43 used its platform to show support and solidarity for film industry workers, while carrying on a vibrant community celebration of Jewish independent cinema.

“We found it absolutely vital to bring our community together to support San Francisco’s local cinemas, while celebrating the vibrancy of Jewish film,” said Lexi Leban, Executive Director of the Jewish Film Institute “This year, we were able to expand our reach with programs that provided ample opportunity for connection and conversation. This is the experience our audiences were hungry for as we hosted more parties and events to connect filmmakers with their audiences.”

The Festival continued its work of curating programs that deepen understanding of what it means to be Jewish through a lens of inclusivity, engagement, and entertainment. Programs like Rabbi on the Block, Remembering Marrakech, and Valeria is Getting Married addressed examples of Jewish identity far outside the mainstream, while other presentations reflected Jewish cultural contributions to American life like Bella!, The Catskills, and Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy. True to its commitment to presenting nuanced and thought-provoking films that catalyze dialogue, SFJFF43 featured challenging films that tapped into the current political moment like Plan C and Israelism, alongside beloved cultural touchstones like Remembering Gene Wilder and a 25th anniversary screening of The Prince of Egypt. These seemingly divergent threads came together to form a robust live event that saw audiences returning enthusiastically to theaters, with numerous standing ovations, sold-out screenings, and active participation from an increasingly diverse community of film-lovers.

“From the Opening Night screening of Remembering Gene Wilder, to the profoundly moving Centerpiece Documentary Red Herring, it was uplifting to present audiences with well-crafted and engaging films,” added Jay Rosenblatt, Program Director of the Jewish Film Institute. “We were proud to provide a San Francisco welcome to local and international filmmakers, and connect audiences with a movie-going experience that brought them together around powerful works of art.”

Photo 1: SFJFF43 Audiences fill the Castro Theatre for Opening Night film Remembering Gene Wilder Photo by Barak Shrama. Photo 2: Remembering Gene Wilder director Ron Frank with the SFJFF43 Opening Night Audience at the Castro Theatre. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

In addition to the Audience Awards, the Festival’s juried awards recognized achievements in short and feature length formats. SFJFF, which is an Academy Award®-qualifying film festival in the Best Documentary Short Subject category, announced People Asleep and the Water as Well, directed by Rotem Elkayam and co-written with Meryem Bouzzit, as the Festival’s Best Documentary Short Award winner. The jury highlighted the film “for the way that the film allows the dead, living visitors, humans, and non humans to share space. Its visual poetry communicated to its audience through patient camera work and its eloquent sound design. We found this to be an exceptionally beautiful observation of mingled faiths and caretaking deserving of this year’s best short documentary award.” The film, which screened as part of the shorts program Remembering Marrakech, a collection of five short documentaries depicting life in the Mellah — the Jewish quarter of Marrakech — told mostly by Moroccan Muslims and the few Jews still living there.

The SFJFF43 Award for Best Narrative Short, presented in partnership with the distributor Film Movement, went to The Anne Frank Gift Shop by Mickey Rapkin, which also received a 2023 Completion Grant from the Jewish Film Institute. The Award honors achievement in short filmmaking that expresses the Jewish experience in a unique, original, and meaningful way, or provides a fresh perspective on diversity within the Israeli or Jewish community. The jury noted that “The Anne Frank Gift Shop was both hilariously irreverent and also pointedly astute in its cultural critique of the modern world and how it views the past. For that it stood out among the stellar selection of short films from this year’s SFJFF.”

The SFJFF43 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award went to the Israeli drama Valeria is Getting Married, directed by Michal Vinik. An honorable mention went to the Italian narrative film The Shadow of the Day, directed by Giuseppe Piccioni. The San Francisco Film Critics Circle released the following statement: “Michal Vinik’s visceral Valeria Is Getting Married is an electrifying and intense drama, set mostly in an apartment, about a Ukrainian woman having second thoughts about an arranged marriage that has brought her to Tel Aviv. Vinik’s feature impressed the jury for its sinewy structure, its clear purpose of showing the human cost of an archaic practice, and the escalation of emotions as deep-seeded biases and sexist views come to the fore over the course of one day.”

The third cycle of JFI Completion Grant recipients was announced during SFJFF43 Closing Night at the Castro Theatre. 2023 Completion Grantees include The Anne Frank Gift Shop, Daughterland, Jews by Choice, Love, Murder and Miracles, Nathan-ism, Sabbath Queen, and The Story of Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!, which received a JFI Discretionary Grant. The Grants, which provide finishing funds to emerging and established filmmakers for original stories that promote thoughtful consideration of Jewish history, life, culture, memory, and identity, awarded $85,000 to seven projects in 2023. JFI’s Completion Grants program has distributed $335,000 to 27 projects since 2020. A Call for Entries for the Grants’ fifth funding round will open in January 2024. For more information on the 2023 Completion Grantees, click here.

2023 JFI Completion Grantees pose with Filmmaker Services Director Marcia Jarmel. From left to right Elan Golod, Marcia Jarmel. Mickey Rapkin, Eva Brzeski, and Yoav Potash. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

Lisa Edelstein, the actor and activist known primarily for her work in television on shows like House, The West Wing, and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, received the SFJFF43 Freedom of Expression Award in conjunction with a screening of Swipe NYC by Sue Zarco Kramer. Edelstein has long used her platform to uplift social causes including voting rights, workers’ rights, the environment, immigration reform, and women’s healthcare. The Freedom of Expression Award — presented annually at SFJFF since 2005 — honors the unfettered imagination, which is the cornerstone of a just, free, and open society. Previous winners include Judith Helfand, Liz Garbus, Joe Berlinger, Norman Lear, Lee Grant, Theodore Bikel, Alan Berliner, Elliott Gould, and Sayed Kashua, among others.

From left to right: Swipe NYC director Sue Zarco Kramer, 2023 Freedom of Expression Award Winner Lisa Edelstein, and her mother Bonnie Edelstein light shabbat candles at the SFJFF43 East Bay Shabbat Dinner at Covenant Winery in Berkeley. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

Opening & Closing Nights

SFJFF43 opened and closed with two revelatory documentaries about Jewish icons in film, politics, and culture. The Opening Night film Remembering Gene Wilder by Ron Frank (MLK: The Assassination Tapes) celebrated the life and legacy of the beloved Jewish screen actor known for films like The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Frisco Kid, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Frank, producers David Knight and Julie Nimoy, and Wilder’s widow Karen Wilder, who participated in the film, regaled audiences with anecdotes and insights about the actor in a post-film Q&A. A party followed at The Green Room at the War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, where guests mingled and enjoyed delicacies from SFJFF43’s Bay Area culinary partners.

SFJFF43 closed out its San Francisco run with the World Premiere of Bella! by Jeff L. Lieberman. Winner of the Library of Congress’ Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, the documentary is the first film to examine the life and legacy of 1970s politician, activist, and feminist icon Bella Abzug. To celebrate Abuzg’s impact, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who is interviewed in the film, attended the premiere and received a standing ovation.

Photo 1: Jamila Fairley and Jeff Lieberman at the SFJFF43 Closing Night presentation of Bella!Photo by Pat Mazzera. Photo 2: Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi receives a standing ovation at the SFJFF43 Closing Night presentation of Bella. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

Festival Highlights

The Centerpiece Narrative, My Neighbor Adolf by Leon Prudovsky, presented a bittersweet comedic exploration of the experiences of a Holocaust survivor living in Latin America, who suspects his German neighbor may be Adolf Hitler in hiding. Although originally expected to attend, lead actor Udo Kier canceled his appearance under SAG-AFTRA strike guidelines. Directed by Kit Vincent, a 2022 JFI Filmmaker in Residence, in his feature debut, the Centerpiece Documentary Red Herring is a poignant, humorous, and visually arresting exploration of Vincent’s relationship with his loved ones after receiving a terminal diagnosis at the age of 24. Vincent, a 2022 recipient of JFI Discretionary Grant, attended along with producer Ed Owles.

Other JFI Completion Grantees in the Festival included 1341 Frames of Love and War, Ran Tal’s study of the life and career of Israeli war photographer Micha Bar-Am; I Like it Here, Ralph Arlyck’s cinematic essay on aging; and The Wild One, a documentary about the life and times of Actors Studio founder and Holocaust survivor Jack Garfein by Tessa Louise-Salomé. A Still Small Voice by Luke Lorentzen which received the 2023 JFI and Jewish Story Partners Momentum Award also screened at the Festival. Lorentzen, Arlyck, and Tal all attended the Festival and enraptured audiences with their insights into the filmmaking process.

SFJFF audiences turned out in droves for Comedy Spotlight The Catskills, which explores the Jewish history of upstate New York’s Borscht Belt resorts and their influence on American culture, with director Lex Gillespie in attendance. Local Spotlight film The Secret Art of Human Flight, directed by San Francisco luminary H.P. Mendoza (Colma: The Musical, I am a Ghost), made its West Coast Premiere at the Festival, receiving a loving reception from his hometown audience who fell in love with the film’s stylized, and comedic, Jew-ish exploration of grief.

An audience member shows off the ticket at the SFJFF43 Comedy Spotlight presentation of The Catskills outside the Castro Theatre. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

SFJFF43 Take Action Spotlight Plan C follows an underground network of activists and healthcare providers rushing to ensure access to abortion pills following the overturn of Roe v. Wade. After the screening, director Tracy Droz Tragos participated in a panel discussion with Gilda Gonzales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Northern California; and Dr. Daniel Grossman, Director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UCSF, moderated by JFI Executive Director Lexi Leban. Audience members left with different ways to take action and learn more about the ongoing movement for reproductive justice. Plan C was featured as part of the SFJFF43 spotlight The Body as Battleground: Abortion Access in Post-Roe America, which also included documentary shorts Under G-d, about the Jewish activists opposing draconian anti-abortion laws under the grounds of religious freedom, and Deciding Vote which tells the story of how a now forgotten New York Republican assemblyman cast a single tie-breaking vote that legalized abortion in New York.

From left to right Dr. Daniel Grossman, Director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UCSF, Gilda Gonzales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Northern California; and Plan Cd irector Tracy Droz Tragos speak with JFI Executive Director Lexi Leban on a panel following the SFJFF43 Take Action Spotlight presentation of Plan C. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

SFJFF43 spotlight Fractured Lens: Divergent Perspectives on Israel and Palestine responded to unfolding current events in the region with films by Israeli, Palestinian, and American filmmakers that addressed themes of democracy, free speech, colonization, and hope for a shared future. Arab Labor writer Sayed Kashua’s new series Madrasa, which follows the experiences of Israeli and Palestinian teens at the Peace School for Bilingual Education in Jerusalem, a rare shared space in a divided society, played for a packed house at the Vogue and Piedmont theaters. Other films in the spotlight included Israelism, A Gaza Weekend, 1341 Frames of Love and War, H2: The Occupation Lab, Mourning in Lod, Closed Circuit, Savoy, Delegation, and Alam.

The Festival’s final week at Landmark’s Piedmont Theatre in Oakland included repeats of Festival favorites, along with four separate shorts programs highlighting a diverse range of Jewish experiences. This year marked the greatest number of short films submitted to SFJFF for consideration. Remembering Marrakech, a collaboration between Israeli and Moroccan film students, presented a series of documentary love letters to the country’s fading Jewish community. While Jews in Shorts: Experiencing the World and Jews in Shorts: Relationships shone a light on short-form narratives exploring Jewish themes in the realm of love, connection, and personal awakenings. Jews in Shorts: Documentaries tackled issues of reproductive rights, climate change, and human being’s relationship with nature.

Photo 1: From left to right: Gili Getz, Sarah Anne Minkin, Sam Eilertsen, Eric Axelman, and JFI Exectuive Director Lexi Leban at the panel for Israelism. Photo by Pat Mazzera. Photo 2: A Gaza Weekend director Basil Khalil sits in a packed house at the Piedmont Theatre for the SFJFF43 screening of his film. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

Beyond the Screen: Filmmaker Events

SFJFF43 featured a number of exclusive events for visiting filmmakers designed to help build the field of independent Jewish filmmaking. The Festival also hosted JFI’s current cohort of Filmmakers in Residence, who traveled from around the country to experience the Festival and participate in workshops, trainings, and critiques of their projects in progress. The Filmmaker Residency provides creative, marketing, and production support for emerging and established filmmakers whose projects explore Jewish history, life, culture and identity. The Residents received industry mentorship and project development led by Marcia Jarmel, Director of Filmmaker Services, and included workshops led by Dawn Valadez from the Bay Area Video Coalition, award-winning hybrid filmmaker, Rodrigo Reyes, and the leaders of LABA BAY, a lab for Jewish Arts and Culture, Elissa Strauss and Sam Shonkoff. The Residents also previewed excerpts from their films for JFI supporters, attending filmmakers, and community leaders at the Festival’s annual Shabbat Dinner, hosted at KQED.

“It was a joy to host our talented JFI Filmmakers in Residence for a second year of creative workshops at the Festival,” said Marcia Jarmel, Director of Filmmaker Services. “These kinds of experiences build community and confidence while developing one’s project, and are vital to creating a vibrant community for independent filmmakers addressing Jewish themes in their work, a role JFI has been building on as we seek to nurture the next generation of Jewish-content film.”

JFI Filmmaker in Residence Sergio Maza presents about his project to the JFI community at the SFJFF43 San Francisco Shabbat dinner at KQED. Photo by Barak Shrama.

Looking Ahead

SFJFF43 brought audiences together for thought-provoking films and community events that expanded and evolved the Jewish story. The 2023 Festival saw a flurry of screenings and premieres of JFI supported films, and new opportunities for established and emerging filmmakers to develop their craft through the Filmmaker Residency Program and filmmaker networking events. Year-round, JFI continues to support and nurture Jewish filmmaking through its Filmmaker Services initiatives. Applications for the Jewish Film Institute’s 2023 Filmmakers in Residence program open August 6, 2023, and the 2023 Pitch + Kvell pitch forum with this year’s Filmmakers in Residence, is slated for November 14. JFI presents its annual WinterFest in February/March of 2024 and the 44th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in Summer 2024. The Call for Entries for SFJFF44 opens in October 2023 at www.jfi.org.

The Jewish Film Institute (JFI) champions bold films and filmmakers that expand and evolve the Jewish story for audiences everywhere. As the presenter of the annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the world’s first and most revered event for independent Jewish storytelling, JFI celebrates the spirit of film, inquiry, independence, collaboration, community, and inclusion to turn conversation into action, reframe understanding of Jewish cultures and identities, and nurture networks of filmmakers and artists. The Institute’s filmmaker services include the competitive, year-long Filmmaker Residency and the JFI Completion Grants, which provide finishing funds to jury-selected projects. www.jfi.org

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) is the largest and longest-running festival of its kind and a leader in the curation and presentation of new film and media exploring the complexity of Jewish life and identity around the world. Since its founding in 1980, SFJFF has cultivated and championed emerging and established filmmakers throughout their careers, helping to launch new artistic voices on a national and international scale. www.sfjff.org

Thanks

The Jewish Film Institute thanks its members, donors, and supporters who make its work possible.

Institutional & Government Partners: Alexander M. & June L. Maisin Foundation, Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies, Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, The Albert & Judith Goldberg Foundation, Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund, John & Marcia Goldman Foundation, Gaia Fund, Grants for the Arts, Kenneth Rainin Foundation, Libitzky Family Foundation, Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, Maxine & Jack Zarrow Family Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Righteous Persons Foundation, Nancy P. & Richard K. Robbins Family Foundation, John Pritzker Family Fund, Lisa Stone Pritzker Family Foundation, Taube Philanthropies, The Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation, Walter & Elise Haas Fund, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Media Sponsors: San Francisco Chronicle (Premier Media), J. The Jewish News of Northern California, KQED, San Francisco Bay Times.

Business & Community Sponsors: Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Francisco, Craig Harrison’s Expressions of Excellence, Sinai Memorial Chapel Chevra Kadisha, Wareham Development, Another Planet Entertainment, CinemaSF, Landmark Theatres.

Hospitality Sponsors: Palihotel San Francisco (Premier Hospitality), Arizmendi Bakery, Bitchin’ Baklava, Catch, Cinderella Bakery & Cafe, Doll’s Kitchen, Fork & Spoon Productions, Grand Bakery, Hagafen Cellars, La Mediterranee, Lagunitas, Loquat, Oren’s Hummus, Poesia Italian Restaurant, Pomella, Saul’s Deli, The Cheese School, Wise Son’s Deli, Verve Coffee Roasters, Z. Cioccolato, Zaytoon, Leftwich Event Specialists, Inc., Axiom Hotel, 2358MRKT, Covenant Wines, Value Culture, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

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Jewish Film Institute

The Jewish Film Institute, based in San Francisco, champions bold films and filmmakers that expand and evolve the Jewish story for audiences everywhere. jfi.org