Why SF is home to the world’s oldest Jewish film festival – J.

Just a few years ago, at a gathering of filmmakers at the annual Berlin Film Festival, a puzzled newcomer asked me why the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival took place in San Francisco. .

As a fourth-generation San Francisco-born Jew and former executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which is now 41, this year runs July 22-August 1, mostly online but with two days at the Castro Theater – I was tempted to answer, in a very Jewish way: “And why should not it will be in San Francisco?

But I had to admit: this is a very good question. After all, with its long history of assimilation, the Jewish population of the Bay Area has traditionally been viewed as the iconic child of the fragmentation of Jewish identity, boasting one of the highest rates of interfaith homes in the world. country.

So it seems counterintuitive that San Francisco is the birthplace of what we can now see as a global Jewish cultural movement: the Jewish Film Festival.

But indeed, in 1980 a young filmmaker and activist by the name of Deborah Kaufman organized the world’s first such event – simply naming it “the Jewish Film Festival” – and presented 10 films in a small theater in the neighborhood. of Mission.

It has captured a zeitgeist, and the festival has continued to be produced uninterrupted (a 2020 streaming festival during Covid notwithstanding) for four decades, now drawing some 40,000 attendees each summer for screenings of dozens of films from around the world that address and question, the Jewish experience.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has sparked an explosion of Jewish film festivals in almost every community and country where Jews are found.

So why San Francisco? In fact, the very diverse, assimilated, and questioning nature of San Francisco – both as a cultural bond and as a Jewish community – provided the necessary ingredients that gave birth to the festival in the first place, and which continue to form the essence. to position itself today as a leader in the field of identity media.

Kaufman came of age in the Bay Area in the 1960s and early 1970s at a time when radical political activism and ethnic solidarity movements were shaping the lives of a generation of students on Bay Area campuses. .

At San Francisco State University, student protests in 1968 led to the formation of the nation’s first independent Ethnic Studies College, while anti-Vietnam and civil rights activism underway at the UC Berkeley forever linked the fate of its important African American, Latino, Asian American and Jewish student populations.

At the same time, a new generation of Bay Area filmmakers, rejecting the commercial focus of Los Angeles, were creating film collectives, art houses and alternative media in the Bay Area to support a new wave of cinema. politically engaged. Young artists were discovering the power of media – especially documentaries – to express new ideas about what it means to be a minority in America.

These young communities of emboldened artists and activists began to show their films to each other as a way not only to share their work, but also to find and develop a sense of community.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has sparked an explosion of Jewish film festivals in almost every community and country where Jews are found.

The “identity-based” or “culturally specific” film festival grew out of this atmosphere as a social, political and cultural phenomenon: a self-defining and self-reflective incubator for newly conscious constituencies.

It is therefore no coincidence that the very first gay film festival took place in San Francisco in 1977, quickly followed by film festivals of Jews, Asian Americans, Latinos, women and many others … the most of them the first, or at least among the first, of their kind.

In the case of the Jewish Film Festival, however, there was another important dimension that defined the mission.

As Kaufman would come to describe it, the Jewish Film Festival was launched as “an intervention”.

Kaufman, joined in sophomore by Janis Plotkin (between them they led the SFJFF for its first 22 years), did not see diversity and diversity reflected in mainstream American Jewish life, or in Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of Jews. complexity they felt. defined the dynamic Jewish identity of their generation.

Since the end of World War II, American Jewish life had been largely defined by the twin poles of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel; but in San Francisco, the large population of unaffiliated and to some extent marginalized young Jews did not see their political concerns – or even themselves – reflected in American Jewish institutions, the media, or synagogues.

The Jewish Film Festival was created primarily as a cultural corrective: presenting a range of images – including films on the Sephardic and Mizrahi experience, on black-Jewish relations, on feminist Jews, on Gay Jews and Jews of Color, films that touched on Israel’s relationship with its Palestinian neighbors and films that focused on stories of Jewish resistance and activism during the Holocaust, beyond victimization – in other words, films that presented counter-narratives to dominant and often sacred viewpoints.

The electricity generated by this intervention, and the joy it seemed to bring to generations of ‘outside’ Jews who finally found themselves on screen and in audiences, became the great defining force of the festival, and its number and influence have increased.

SFJFF directors, staff and volunteers began helping other communities create similar festivals (not always with the same sense of activism, which was in some ways unique to San Francisco), even publishing a tip sheet for starting your own film festival (Jewish or not), and later a comprehensive guide to independent Jewish film – a function now provided by a strong online archive.

During the SFJFF’s first decade, its organizers began raising enough money to travel to the Berlin Film Festival each year, bringing new Jewish voices from across Europe and the Middle East to audiences hungry for the Bay Area.

At home, the festival grew to be screened in four locations, eventually adding year-round screenings, a winter festival, a distribution arm, a youth filmmaking program, and becoming itself an important training ground and informal film market for the growing film industry.

A landmark event in which the SFJFF proved its role as a powerful cultural intervention took place in 1990, when it hosted an innovative festival in Moscow, just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Attracting some 60,000 participants and overcoming enormous logistical and political obstacles, the Moscow festival has become the largest Jewish cultural gathering in the history of the Soviet Union.

But SFJFF’s cultural activism often clashed with traditional Jewish resistance at home: the Moscow festival encountered opposition from groups supporting the rescue of Soviet Jews, while two years earlier, the festival faced outrage and funding cuts when it invited Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad to participate in a post-film panel in San Francisco.

Jay Rosenblatt, program director at the Jewish Film Institute, discusses the films with the youth jury at the 2019 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Photo / Courtesy JFI)

In fact, over the festival’s four decades, one can practically trace the rise and fall of American Jewish anxiety, particularly around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by measuring the ferocity of criticism leveled against the festival’s programming choices. .

In the mid-1990s, in the rosy optimism of the Oslo Accord, the festival featured films celebrating the overlap of Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi and Mizrahi cultures, featured films made by Palestinians, and benefited from community collaborations with the Bay Area Arab Film Festival.

These programs have generally been greeted warmly (albeit sometimes with suspicion) and seldom met with significant opposition.

During my eight-year tenure at the festival, which coincided with the Second Intifada, the 2006 Lebanon War, and growing concerns about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on American campuses, the vehemence of criticism from Jewish conservatives grew. is amplified into outright cultural wars across the country, targeting Jewish theater companies, museums, Jewish community centers and, in particular, the SFJFF.

These cultural presenters have been increasingly pressured to withdraw from programs and speakers seen as dividing Jewish solidarity or overly critical of Israel.

Ironically, this backlash came amid an unprecedented boom in the Israeli film industry, including powerful (often dark) dramas and sophisticated documentaries (often highly critical of Israel’s status quo) formed an important part of the SFJFF’s annual program.
These tumultuous tides crossed in 2009 when the SFJFF screened an Israeli documentary on American anti-occupation activist Rachel Corrie, and the festival’s invitation to her mother to participate in a Q&A after the film.

The event erupted in angry calls for months to boycott the festival and eliminate its funding, and counter protests supporting the principles of open debate in Jewish life – a controversy that has gone viral in the news. waves of indignation on social networks.

But while the fault lines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are likely to continue to be reflected in the community’s response to festival programs, it is important to highlight how far we have come in SFJFF’s 41 years, expanding the notion of what a film is and what a festival can mean for community cohesion.

A look at most Jewish film festival websites and catalogs – among hundreds around the world, from Hong Kong to Warsaw to Melbourne – will uncover films celebrating an extraordinary range of Jewish expressions, from hip artists. hop and tattoo artists to world-class Israeli chefs. ; you’ll find orthodox dramas, Mexican romantic comedies, lesbian comedies, Bollywood musicals, and movie school horror films that reflect surprising aspects of Jewish identities around the world.

We can no longer say, as the founding generation once regretted, that we do not find ourselves on the screen.

It is in large part thanks to the visionaries who launched, supported and supported the SFJFF 41 years ago that the “Jewish Film Festival” is today a global cultural phenomenon. And thanks to them, looking back, we can say, of course it started in San Francisco.

A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 book “Celebration! 25 years of the Berlin and Brandenburg Jewish Film Festival ”(Neofelis Verlag). Reprinted with permission.

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