S.F. fest pushes political buttons

Event celebrates silver anniversary; latest edition bows July 21

SAN FRANCISCO — Billing itself as celebrating 5,765 years of culture, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival itself may not be quite so long-lived. But it remains the first, oldest and largest fest of its type — inspiration and progenitor to some 100-plus Jewish fests worldwide.

2005 marks the fest’s silver anniversary. Latest edition unspools at S.F.’s historic Castro Theater July 21-28, then “wanders” to locations in Berkeley, Mountain View and San Rafael through Aug. 8.

Bookending the San Fran sked are two foreign crowdpleasers. Official opener is Dani Levy’s farcial German hit “Go for Zucker! — An Unorthodox Comedy,” while closer is Sam Garbarski’s multinational Euro co-production “Rashevski’s Tango,” a bittersweet family saga set in contemporary Paris.

But such arthouse-ready charmers have seldom dominated a festival that has invited controversy and debate from its inception.

Founded in 1981 by city native Deborah Kaufman, the SFJFF fast established a rep for programmatic gambles that pushed buttons even among the open-minded auds of liberal San Francisco.

In particular, Kaufman and co-director Janis Plotkin (both of whom left the fest in recent years but will receive special honors this year) dared to include pics and panel discussions that addressed discomfiting issues around Palestine, Israel and the occupation of traditionally Arab lands. Shouting matches erupted at screenings — and in the local Jewish press afterward.

That’s all to the good, says Nancy Fishman, SFJFF’s program director since 2003.

“The old saying ‘Three Jews, four opinions’ comes from a society that prizes diverse viewpoints and freedom of expression,” she explains. “The festival has a long-standing commitment to discussing political issues that impact Jews worldwide.

“Sometimes the fur flies … but in the end we find the process of airing our opinions collectively brings greater understanding — to both the Jewish community and non-Jews alike.”

Fittingly, fest’s 25th year sees the launch of new Freedom of Expression awards that will be given annually to those who’ve demonstrated (in exec director Peter L. Stein’s words) both “creative expression in cinema and the profoundly Jewish call to forge a better world through one’s deeds, words, and acts of imagination.”

Inaugural recipients are two octogenarian former victims of the Red Scare era, scenarists Norma Barzman (who is still battling for restored credit on the 1946 noir classic “The Locket”) and Walter Bernstein, famed for such post-blacklist triumphs as “Fail-Safe.” A special sidebar on “Jews and the Hollywood Blacklist” will recall that dark chapter in 1950s industry and national politics.

Repping the current generation of Jewish filmmaking mavericks is third honoree Jay Rosenblatt, an area resident whose short films (“King of the Jews,” “Human Remains”) have won numerous international awards.

Additional focal points include spotlights on new Israeli cinema and music/art-related films.

And there will be controversy, as usual: Among the many documentaries programmed is Elle Flanders’ “Zero Degrees of Separation,” a look at two embattled, mixed Israeli-Palestinian gay couples that won an artistic prize at last month’s S.F. Lesbian & Gay Fest.

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