Following its first screening in 1981, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was a “mom-and-mom operation” for the next 12 years. Since its inception, this first among American Jewish film festivals has shown some 400 films—half of them premieres— draws 34,000 viewers annually, and has helped nurture festivals in 40 cities around the world.
With a festival that was a success from the start, founding mother Deborah Kaufman found she was not alone in her attraction to Jewish films as a way of exploring her Jewish identity. A San Francisco-born non-practicing attorney, she says she “couldn’t relate to Jewish establishment institutions and events,” focused as they were on Holocaust remembrance and Israel Independence Day. Films were “a bridge between the material out there and audiences like me, hungry for secular Jewish identity.”
Kaufman brought Janis Plotkin on board as co-director for the festival’s second year Plotkin’s own epiphanic connection to Jewish films came during Josh Waletzky’s 1980 film “Image Before My Eyes,” which resurrected Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust. Coming from a Polish background, Plotkin could finally see that “Polish Jewry was something other than corpses. It’s important to give Jews other images of what we are.” The films in the festival, she says, go beyond the Jewish establishment’s “triumvirate of identity— religion. Holocaust and Israel.”
These days, opening night fills San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, a true temple of film worship—Hollywood baroque with Versailles/deco influence. The sexual heat of the annual gay and lesbian film festival, also held in this venue, is replaced by the talking, eating, high-decibel Jews.
The festival remains true to its theme. “Independent Filmmakers: Looking at Ourselves.” Last summer Eve Annenberg’s “Dogs: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint” was among its offerings. The film has a nominally Jewish lead character who convinces her underemployed Lower East Side roommates to join her in a business they can operate out of their kitchen. Asked during the post-screening question period, “Do you know of any Jewish women straggling and poor in New York?,” the 30-year-old Annenberg shot back, “Aside from me and my friends?”
Plotkin, who has continued to ran the festival since Kaufman left three years ago to produce her own film, says the 17th festival will open in San Francisco July 17, then travel to Berkeley and Palo Alto. The focus will be on American-Jewish identities—spiritual seeking, family relations, black-Jewish relations, including Kaufman’s debut film, “Blacks & Jews” (see adjacent page).
The festival team has become a year-round Jewish film resource. With its $400,000 budget and three-person staff, the festival is involved with programming for KQED, San Francisco’s public television station, along with the cable Jewish Television Network, and film distribution through Atara Releasing. In 1989, the festival even produced Moscow’s first Jewish film festival.
And for anyone inspired to replicate their success, the staff has written a book on how to do it, the Independent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide; the recently published third edition includes listings for more than 400 films, subject listings, distributors, and a complete guide to producing a festival. Even with dozens of Jewish film festivals up and running, Kaufman and Plotkin obviously believe that room remains for more mom-and-mom operations.