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.

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