There would seem to be something for everyone at the 11-day, 18th annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival, Feb. 7-17, which will feature 38 films, among them documentaries, shorts and feature-length films.
The festival, which started 18 years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego with only 40 people attending, has grown a great deal over the years. Today, the event can draw as many as 1,100 people to a single film, and it is the largest Jewish cultural event in San Diego, according to Francine Ginsburg, this year’s festival chair.
“You had one small showing with a small number of people, and today we have grown to the point where we have four different venues,” said Ginsburg. She estimated this year they will sell between 20,000 and 25,000 tickets.
Films are being shown in four different theaters, the AMC La Jolla 12 Theatres, the UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center, the UltraStar Poway Creekside Plaza 10 and the David and Dorthea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. Having different venues around the county allows the festival to reach as broad a spectrum of people as possible.
The overall objective is to bring films to the public that would not usually be seen. In addition to movies from the United States and Israel, the festival also highlights films from places such as New Zealand, Mexico, England and Germany.
“These are films that you would never, never see anywhere else,” said Ilise Gersten Bush, curator of the festival.
“The Israeli film industry has grown tremendously over the years,” Ginsburg said.
The film selection process for the festival is quite intense for the committee in charge of choosing the films. Screeners visit other film festivals in cities such as San Francisco and Toronto to find prospective films, and eventually the committee has a collection of approximately 200 to 300 films. Then the committee meets periodically over a period of six months, during which they view, discuss and evaluate the films.
“We try to bring in films about people, periods of times, things that people don’t know anything about, where something can be learned and gained,” said Ginsburg. “It’s really tough because you have to get it to around 40 films.”
“It was a very hard selection this year,” agreed Bush, who also jokingly said “there was very little bloodshed this year” in the process of selecting the films. But, she said, the result has been rewarding.
“I can assure that the films we have this year are very, very good,” said Bush. “All of these films, I’ve seen them all several times, and I wouldn’t put them out there if I couldn’t stand behind them.”
A unique aspect of the festival is that many of the directors of the films attend the showings and hold a question-and-answer session after the lights have gone up.
In addition to directors attending the festival, this year has the distinction of having as a guest Israeli-Russian actress Evgenia Dodina, who stars in three of the films being shown: “Dear Mr. Waldman,” “A Touch Away” and “Love & Dance.”
“Everyone in Israel would recognize her,” said Ginsburg.
Opening night will showcase the comedy “Sixty Six,” starring Helena Bonham Carter and Stephen Rea. It is the story of a young English boy named Bernie Rubens who is excitedly preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Unfortunately, that year the British soccer team makes it all the way to the World Cup, which just happens to be the same day as his Bar Mitzvah, and Bernie is afraid nobody will come.
“There’s a lot of humor in it,” said Ginsburg, who also said that the festival tries to have a large number of English-language as well as international films, because not everyone likes or is able to read subtitles.
A particular treat for audiences this year will be the showing of the Israeli movie “Beaufort,” which is up for an Academy Award in the foreign language category. The film, which takes place during the withdrawl of Israel from Lebanon during the 2000 war, depicts the last days of Israeli presence at Beaufort, a former Crusader stronghold. The movie tells the story of Commander Liraz and his men as they endure multiple attacks and bombings and the difficult living conditions inside the fort.
“It’s a really stunning picture,” said Bush. “It’s a lush picture, and it’s not something you will forget quickly. And of course everyone will have different perceptions of what they’ve seen. I’m really glad it got nominated for an Oscar; I think it deserves it.”
There will also be documentaries on a wide array of topics. One of this year’s films, titled “As Seen through These Eyes,” tells the story of prisoners in concentration camps during the Holocaust who created artwork with scraps of paper, charcoal and paint to document the atrocities they were experiencing. The documentary, directed by Hilary Helstein and narrated by poet Maya Angelou, incorporates archival footage and interviews with camp survivors.
Another documentary that promises to be of interest is “Orthodox Stance,” which tells the story of Brooklyn professional boxer Dmitriy Salita, 24, an Orthodox Jew from the Ukraine. The movie follows his life as he goes through training and boxing matches, all the while keeping the traditions of his Orthodox Jewish faith.
“I think it will be inspirational for many people,” said Ginsburg.
Another moving documentary is the film “So Long Are You Young,” which details the life of a little-known Jewish immigrant in the mid nineteenth century who authored a poem titled “Youth,” about how age is only a state of mind. Decades later, it caught the attention during World War II of General MacArthur, who framed the poem and hung it on his wall during the occupation of Japan. The poem eventually gained popularity with the Japanese people, and became far more famous than its author ever was.
“This was just such a fascinating story,” said Ginsberg.
Closing night will feature the documentary “Making Trouble,” which is a tribute to female Jewish American comediennes Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Wendy Wasserstein and Molly Picon. Produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive, this movie combines commentary, interviews and archival footage to tell the story of these groundbreaking women.
The festival will include the Joyce Forum on Feb. 11, named for Joyce Axelrod, the original chair of the festival. “It is to honor emerging filmmakers,” said Ginsburg, who also noted that most of the other filmmakers featured in the festival are professionals, although this year’s festival happens to have more emerging filmmakers than in years past.
Because there are so many high-quality films that the festival must choose from, there inevitably are a great number of worthy movies that do not make the cut. To help rectify this problem, the festival is starting their new Year-Round Programming, which will show Jewish-oriented films during the rest of the year.
For more information, visit www.lfjcc.com/sdjff or call (858) 457-3030. Tickets can be ordered at tickets.lfjcc.org or the JCC Box Office at (858) 362-1348.