The Mother of All Jewish Film Festivals

Twenty-five years ago in San Francisco, Deborah Kaufman had a “little” idea to start the first-ever Jewish International Film Festival, an annual event which has since showcased hundreds of artists, encouraged Jewish film around the World, and inspired countless other film series. Her wild ride as both a producer and filmmaker has taken her from Berkeley all the way to the United Nations, and beyond.

Kaufman sat down with Lilith for a Q&A the week before she was to be honored this summer by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival for her achievements.

You’re a second-generation Jewish San Franciscan. There don’t seem to be many of those.

We’re rare, but we exist! I was raised in a secular Zionist home. My mother made aliya when I went to college, and she still lives in Israel, where she is a poet and translator of Hebrew poetry into English. I grew up in a pretty Jewishly aware home. But don’t worry, in the 70s I rebelled like everyone else!

You have a law degree. How did you end up as a filmmaker?

[laughs] Out here you are always reinventing yourself— that’s the California way. I went to law school in the 70s, and there was this explosion of interest in countercultural Judaism. I had friends who were filmmakers, and were also Jewish, but there was no bridge enabling Jewish independent filmmakers to get their films to audiences. So I had this idea to do a little film festival.

At the beginning it was very small, not ambitious. 1 never thought I’d have a career as a Jewish arts administrator It was more like, I can’t relate to Holocaust Memorial Day or the High Holidays— what’s left for me? The festival grew out of what I guess you could call a secular-cultural-Bundist experiment. It’s surprising, but even though Jews dominate Hollywood, there had never been a Jewish film festival before anywhere in the world.

The festival just took off, and before I knew it my whole life was living and breathing film. I didn’t even get paid the first year. I was eating air, living in a hovel in Berkeley on a mattress on the floor. But I felt I was creating community.

Has the festival changed a lot over the years?

Well, 25 years later there are hundreds of Jewish film festivals all over the world. It’s interesting to see how different they all are—now it’s like an institution that has grown up and has a hard time reaching young people. It’s the opposite of the pressure that I had. [laughs] When I started the festival, we were under pressure to be cuttingedge, experimental, rebellious—now they’re under pressure to show romantic comedies and mainstream movies.

After 13 years of directing the festival, you decided to step down and make your own films. Why?

I felt I needed to create the films that I wasn’t seeing in the festival.

Your new film, “Thirst,” isn’t Jewish, but does touch upon the social justice values that you talk about as part of your Jewish upbringing. What made you decide to make a film about water privatization?

Living in California during the so-called “energy crisis,” we read that Enron was involved in the water business—and that was scary. We started doing research and we found out that all these corporations were trying to privatize water around the world. We realized that water is going to be like the next oil, the “blue gold” for the 21st century.

We kept hearing stories of resistance to water privatization in developing nations—in Bolivia the army was brought in to put down a rebellion because the people didn’t want to sell off the public water supply—and people were getting shot. They were literally dying in the streets to protect their water. These were stories that needed to be told.

When they think about their water being controlled by a huge foreign multinational corporation, it just doesn’t seem right. That’s why this film is really about democracy—about who is controlling resources, who has the power to make decisions that affect our daily lives. If a French water company can make more money by taking our water and shipping it to Los Angeles or a different city, they’re going to do it. Pretty soon they are going to be able to break apart a polar icecap and ship it in tankers to sell it in China— it sounds crazy, but they are already working on things like that.

“Thirst” was a big hit in Tel Aviv, where it was the opening night feature for the first Israeli Environmental Film Fest. Why did it resonate so strongly there?

Oh, it was so great. The film was screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, and the mayor came. It turns out that he’s against privatization. But it’s really a global issue, beyond Tel Aviv. The film has played all over the world, even at the United Nations. We have a DVD with subtitles in Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

It sounds like it’s been a whirlwind tour. Can you choose a favorite moment?

Let’s see. Oh, Atlanta. They had a bad water privatization experience. The water was coming out of the taps brown; there were alerts not to drink the water—even in the most affluent neighborhoods in Atlanta.

We had an incredible screening there organized by multiracial groups, with a lively discussion about water as a human right. Not just an environmental issue, or labor issue, but really about human rights. A week later we heard that they passed a new law that would finance the municipal water utility so that it could remain public.

Where do you get your energy?

I’m really lucky. I’m inspired by a lot of people, by anyone’s creativity and risk-taking. You have to get through your own cynicism, and the older you get, the more you feel like things aren’t changing fast enough. It can be overwhelming, but the trick is to hang out with people who stay busy and then you don’t have the time to get stuck.

Who are some of the new Jewish feminist filmmakers we should be watching out for?

I really admire Michal Aviad, who makes documentaries about Israeli social issues from a woman’s point of view, issues like the army and male identity, or relationships between Palestinian and Israeli women. Pearl Gluck is also one to look out for—she has a film called Divan. There are more women filmmakers coming up now because the walls have been broken down and the technology is more accessible.

The film festival you started 25 years ago has grown beyond what you ever imagined. Have you thought about where you want to be 25 years from now?

You know, I just want to be living in a healthy planet that’s at peace. I just want to continue making films and engaging with people both younger and older who are committed to this work. I’m a now person. I’m living right now.