Documentary film has always played a significant role at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which is the oldest and largest such festival in the world. Over the years it has earned a national and international reputation for bold programming that takes on political and social issues. As an independent nonprofit arts organization, the SFJFF is able to screen a wide range of work and reach out to a broad – not solely Jewish – audience. Other U.S.-based Jewish film festivals are programs of Jewish community centers or institutions and are beholden to the policies and views of their organizations.
Last years SFJFF screened more than 55 films from 16 countries, including more than two dozen documentaries. Examples were Phnom Penh Lullaby, a disturbing film by Polish director Pawel Kloc, about a couple – an Israeli man and a Cambodian woman – struggling to survive in Phnom Penh; Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror’s Incessant Visions: Letters from an Architect, a fascinating work about German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn; and Between Two Worlds, a personal essay by Bay Area filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, which delves into Jewish identity and politics.
From its early days, the festival made a point of engaging its audiences and promoting dialog about politics and ideas. Occasionally, its programming stirred up controversy. Deborah Kaufman, co-director of Between Two Worlds and founder of the SFJFF, says the Festival’s first big confrontation with the Jewish community was in 1988 when it screened Talking to the Enemy, a British documentary about an Israeli and a Palestinian, followed by a talk with Palestinian peace activist Mubarak Awad. One result was that the Koret Foundation, a philanthropic organization, pulled its funding from the festival.
In 1998 the festival screened Al-Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948, provoking protests and anger from the center right and the extreme right in the local Jewish community, says Janis Plotkin, the festival’s executive director at the time. They objected to the title of the film and felt that showing a film about the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians in a Jewish film festival was terribly wrong, particularly when 1998 was also the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
The festival’s most recent controversy came in 2009 when some of the same people who attacked the SFJFF a decade before, vehemently protested its decision to invite Cindy Corrie to participate in a Q&A after a screening of Rachel, Simone Bitton’s documentary about Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old woman who was killed as she tried to stop a bulldozer from demolishing homes in Gaza. They considered the film and the presence of Cindy, Rachel’s mother, at the festival to be anti-Israel and demanded that the festival cancel the event. The screening went ahead as planned but with the addition of Dr. Michael Harris, a pro-Israel activist with the Bay Area chapter of StandWithUs, who spoke before the film began.
And it is that angry response to Rachel that eventually became a part of Kaufman and Snitow’s 2011 film Between Two Worlds, which thoughtfully examines the question: Who has the right to speak for the Jewish community? In the film, the directors also reveal their own personal stories, explore Jewish identity, and expose generational differences and censorship among Jewish Americans about politics, divestment from Israel, as well as the irony of a U.S. holocaust center building a museum of tolerance in Jerusalem on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery.
“The Jewish community is [a] much more polarized community now,” says Kaufman. “There’s more censorship and self-censorship; people with politically progressive views are often afraid to speak out, especially because Israel’s government is the most right-wing now.”
The SFJFF was the first Jewish film festival in the United States to accept Between Two Worlds, says Kaufman, who credits the festival for remaining open to debate. The theater was packed for the San Francisco screening, which was followed by a panel discussion that included the filmmakers, Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and two professors of Jewish identity, Riv-Ellen Prell, of the University of Minnesota, and Len Saxe of Brandeis University.
At the panel, co-director Alan Snitow said they made the film because they wanted to generate discussion and reveal the “secrets that were not being discussed at the Seder table.” The panelists discussed Jewish identity, values, and politics, with Rabbi Kula advocating for “grace in conversation” and “listening to the side that is most repugnant to you.”
In a recent interview, Kaufman says that Between Two Worlds has been equally rejected and accepted by Jewish film festivals but she can’t point to any particular pattern to discern the reasons for its 50/50 acceptance/rejection rate. Though wherever the film has screened, she says people really want to talk to each other and there is a real desire for understanding.
One of the most provocative films in the 2011 SFJFF was Phnom Penh Lullaby, an intense documentary about a troubled family in Cambodia. The film focuses on Ilan Schickman, an Israeli eking out a marginal existence reading tarot cards in Phonom Penh, where he lives with Saran, his alcoholic Cambodian girlfriend, and their very young daughters. Director Pawel Kloc somehow gained the couple’s trust and was able to capture very uncomfortable, emotional scenes between Saran and Ilan.
Kloc also reveals the seedy underside of Phnom Penh – kids sniffing glue, prostitution, drug dealing. With a hidden camera, he has a conversation with a man who claims he has a ten-year-old girl available for sex for $100. All these scenes combine to create an extremely difficult but compelling viewing experience. At the Q&A with the director after the screening, audience response ranged from a woman claiming he’d created a masterpiece to a man who said he was disturbed Kloc had even made the film because he found it very exploitative and voyeuristic.