Documentary film has always been a part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 23–August 10 2009), which was founded in 1980 by filmmaker Deborah Kauffman. The festival has had a longstanding tradition of screening films with a wide range of view- points and subjects — from the lives of the Jewish population in the United States to stories of Palestinians and Israelis. At times, the choices of programming create controversy.

Social justice films are a regularly feature at SFJFF and this year the festival’s executive director Peter Stein curated a special programme called Reel Change: Social Justice Films. Six documentaries were featured, including Rachel, Israeli-French director Simone Bitton’s thoughtful film about Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist killed by a bulldozer in Gaza; Refugees, Israeli filmmaker Shai Carmeli-Pollak’s documentary about African refugees in Israel; Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech by U.S. documentary maker Liz Garbus, a personal and historical exploration of the right to free speech in America; and The Yes Men Fix the World, in which U.S. activist-pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno chronicle their work. is programme also included a panel with filmmakers and activists discussing social justice as a Jewish value.

The festival faced intense criticism by parts of the local Jewish community and longtime festival funders the Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. They were upset with the festival for inviting Cindy Corrie, the mother of Rachel Corrie, to attend the San Francisco screening of Rachel, and for co-presenting the screening with Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee, which they labeled anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli. Some people even called for a boycott of the film and the SFJFF board presient stepped down from her position.

“It’s not uncommon to invite subjects of the film,” explains programme director Nancy K. Fishman. “We knew it would be controversial but not how controversial it would be.” The film had already screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it was well received. The SFJFF had invited director Simone Bitton but she couldn’t attend so she suggested that the festival invite Cindy Corrie who was present at the film’s screening in San Francisco. At the sold-out screening in Berkeley, Peter Stein mentioned the contentious response in his introduction, which he says revealed the deep rift in the community regarding Israeli affairs: “Our festival proceeds on the principle that by being exposed to a wide array of stories and ideas, each of us can better understand ourselves, make choices in our lives and decide what we really believe in and what we truly stand for.”

we are largely secular Jews

this year the festival presented 27 documentaries, including films by American, Arab and Israeli directors. “We try to keep an ear to the ground and find films that are of interest to the Jewish community,” says Fishman. “We are very interested in high quality documentaries. the first thing we look for is a very strong film that is well craed and well made.” Every year SFJFF tries to include the best documentaries from Doc Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Fishman acknowledges that certain subjects come up repeatedly, such as films about Israel and the Holocaust, which she calls SFJFF “touch- stones.”

DOX INTERVIEWED the directors of two documentaries that screened at SFJFF: Chronicle of a Kidnap by Nurit Kedar and William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe by Emily and Sarah Kunstler. Kedar is an Israeli filmmaker whose film delves into the complex story of Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of an Israeli soldier kidnapped in 2006 by Hezbollah, and her international campaign to discover what happened to him. The Kunstlers are U.S. directors whose first feature-length film takes a personal look at the life and career of their father, a famous and controversial civil rights lawyer.

The Kunstler film screened as part of the Reel Change programme mentioned above and each of the films screened at the Castro theatre, San Francisco’s historic 1920s movie house that seats 1400. So what is the significance of screening their films at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival:

– Emily Kunstler: The film itself doesn’t really deal specifically with Judaism but it’s a film about legacy. It’s about standing up in your lifetime, on courage, making choices socially active. Our Jewish film on our father’s being a Jewish lawyer has made us think about the choices he made in the context of the Jewish tradition. They are in the history of the prophetic Jewish tradition and the Jewish tradition of social justice and working for the underdog.

– Sarah Kunstler: In our last interview with a reporter who writes for Jewish magazines, he started asking us in a very nice way, how Jewish are you? It’s an interesting question because we are largely secular Jews. We celebrated some Jewish holidays like Passover and Hanukkah. We didn’t really get religion from our parents. Neither of them really believed in organised religion. And our father didn’t literally explain his choices to us by tying them to a Jewish identity. We didn’t think about that tradition when we were making this film, what it means to be a Jewish lawyer or how our film connects to Judaism.

– I think being Jewish is a cultural, historical and political legacy regardless of whether you embrace the religious traditions or not. It’s our first Jewish film festival. The Jewish reporter said, “To many of us political leftist Jews, we were proud of him because he was a Jewish lawyer. He was one of us, we claimed him.” We have to recognise that not only was he an icon that exists as a radical lawyer, as a troublemaker, as a civil rights lawyer but to the Jewish community he was a Jewish lawyer.

– Nurit Kedar: It’s not that every film they bring is from Israel. The Jewish people they don’t like me and they don’t like my films because my films are controversial. They don’t show the bright side of Israel. The Jewish film festivals are not willing to get films that have something to say against the policy of the Israeli government. But San Francisco is one of the brave, courageous festivals.

Two years ago when I was here and they screened my three films on Lebanon (Borders, Lebanon Dream, and Wasted), it was very tough for the audience to take it. In 2007 the festival showed Hot House (directed by Shimon Dotan), a film about Palestinian prisoners in jail. Who wants to see it? San Francisco was the only Jewish film festival to show it. When I asked Nicola Galliner, the director of the Jewish film festival in Berlin, why she didn’t take these kinds of films, she says, “You are a troublemaker. My board of directors wouldn’t allow me to bring these kinds of films. On the other side you always have the films that don’t criticise. They are personal stories. It’s about a father, a mother, a grandmother. Or the films from the Holocaust.

Modern Times Review