41st SF Jewish film fest screens at Castro and online

Dozens of movies from around the world reflect varied experiences, views

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, one of the largest of its kind in the world, launches its 2021 edition Thursday, in COVID-era theatrical/virtual hybrid form. As always, it features a diverse, bold, progressive lineup of movies that reflect Jewish experiences and values worldwide.

Fifty movies from 20 countries are in the festival, which is presented by the Jewish Film Institute. Live showings are at the Castro Theatre on July 24-25, and most films may be streamed any time between July 22 and Aug. 1. Some virtual selections have added programming with special guests at suggested streaming times.

Opening might attractions include a live screening of “Persian Lessons,” a comedy-drama about a Belgian Jew, a Nazi officer and an invented language that the Jew, claiming to be Persian, passes off as Farsi.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, left, and Lars Eidinger appear in “Persian Lessons,” the 41st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s gripping opening feature. (Courtesy photo)

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, left, and Lars Eidinger appear in “Persian Lessons,” the 41st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s gripping opening feature. (Courtesy photo)

Also on opening night: “Misha and the Wolves, a documentary about a woman’s Holocaust-survival memoir whose publisher goes sleuthing to determine whether the dramatic story is true. The virtual event is at 6:30 p.m. July 22 with filmmaker Sam Hobkinson slated to attend.

In “Plan A,” the closing night feature, screening virtually at 6 p.m. Aug. 1, revenge-seeking Jews aim to exterminate the German population by poisoning the water mains in this fact-inspired drama.

Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (“Angry Harvest,” “Europa Europa”), the festival’s 2021 Freedom of Expression Award recipient, will attend the event (online at 7 p.m. July 27) and present “Charlatan,” her biographical drama about Czech healer Jan Mikolášek.

“Not Going Quietly,” which profiles health-care activist Ady Barkan, who was diagnosed with ALS at age 32, screens online at noon July 26, followed by a talk with filmmakers and teen activists at 2 p.m.

The diverse lineup also includes 1939’s “The Light Ahead,” a shtetl-set comedic and social drama considered an American Yiddish screen gem, at 3:30 p.m. July 25 at the Castro and 3:30 p.m. Aug. 1 online.

Musician-poet-performer Alicia Rabins, meanwhile, considers her Jewish identity along with the crimes of her title figure in “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” described as a “mystical meta-musical about the greatest financial fraud in history.” It’s at 5 p.m. July 24 at the Castro and online at 7:30 p.m. July 31.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 41

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. July 24-25

When: July 22 through Aug. 1 online

Tickets: $15-$25 for live screenings; $15 for streaming; $90 for in-theater pass; $245 for streaming pass

Contact: (415) 621-0568, sfjff.org

MORE SELECT HIGHLIGHTS

200 Meters: Director Ameen Nayfeh’s “200 Meters,” a road tale and Palestinian-condition dramedy, features a West Bank man named Mustafa (Ali Suliman) who lives just 200 meters, but a world away, from the apartment where his wife and three kids, on the Israeli side of the border wall, reside. When his son is injured and hospitalized, Mustafa, wanting to be with his family but denied entry at an Israeli checkpoint, hires smugglers to transport him over the border, a move that lands him and three fellow passengers in scary straits after the smugglers abandon them. Low-key and beautifully acted by the entire cast, who give dimension to somewhat contrived roles, the film quietly illustrates the everyday injustices and frustrations that are part of being on the powerless side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. (6 p.m. July 29 suggested streaming time) (A.K.)

The Adventures of Saul Bellow: The biopic, in its U.S. premiere, covers the towering yet controversial 20th century author whose determination to become a novelist prompted his parents to call him a “schmuck with a pen,” but who went on to win several literary awards, marry five women and base many characters in his novels on those wives. (5 p.m. July 25 suggested streaming time) (J.A.T.)

The Conductor: It’s the West Coast premiere of the documentary covering the career of Marin Alsop, who overcame gender bias to become in 2007 the first woman named music director of a major U.S. symphony orchestra in Baltimore, serving as a role model for numerous women; she remains the only female holding such a position in this country. (6 p.m. July 28 suggested streaming time) (J.A.T.)

Kings of Capitol Hill: The probing Israeli documentary traces the history of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful lobbying group that started off in 1963 as a grassroots movement but eventually turned sharply to the right politically, much to the dismay of many Jewish-Americans, including several former AIPAC members. (5 p.m. July 31 suggested streaming time) (J.A.T.)

A groundbreaking yet little known Black attorney, activist, poet and professor is the subject of “My Name Is Pauli Murray.” (Courtesy photo)

A groundbreaking yet little known Black attorney, activist, poet and professor is the subject of “My Name Is Pauli Murray.” (Courtesy photo)

My Name Is Pauli Murray: Though she was a groundbreaker in racial- and gender-equality law, and Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited her as inspirational, Pauli Murray has remained largely unknown outside the legal community. Directed by “RBG” filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, this film gives long-overdue recognition to the attorney, activist, poet and professor. Murray (1910-1985) grew up African-American in the segregated South and experienced discrimination in her educational pursuits. She got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks’ famous act and organized a sit-in at a whites-only diner two decades before the events at the Woolworth lunch counter. Five years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg presented her gender-equality case to the Supreme Court, Murray was applying the 14th Amendment to women’s rights. The film also covers her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, romantic partnership with law-firm office manager Irene Barlow, role in founding the National Organization for Women with Betty Friedan, and distinction as the nation’s first African-American female Episcopal priest. There were personal struggles. Murray consulted with doctors about her feelings that she was male, in times when such issues weren’t understood. The film isn’t particularly original, sticking to interviews and archival materials. But the talking heads (RBG included) and histories are first-rate. (2 p.m. July 24, Castro) (A.K.)

Persian Lessons: Said to be inspired by true events, the gripping drama, in its U.S. premiere, focuses on a Belgian Jew who is arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Germany, where he unexpectedly is mistaken for being Persian and is given the life-saving but fraught-with-exposure task of teaching the language to a camp officer. (8:15 p.m. July 24, Castro) (J.A.T.)

Documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff records her doctor’s appointment, and impending death, in the moving “Prognosis: Notes on Living,” screening at noon July 25 at the Castro. (Courtesy Citizen Film/Groundspark)

Documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff records her doctor’s appointment, and impending death, in the moving “Prognosis: Notes on Living,” screening at noon July 25 at the Castro. (Courtesy Citizen Film/Groundspark)

Prognosis: Notes on Living: Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff documents her battle with stage-4 breast cancer, beginning a month after her diagnosis in 2015 and continuing through her final breaths, at her San Francisco home, with family and friends in 2017. Chasnoff and Kate Stilley Steiner direct this life-embracing film; friends and colleagues completed it after Chasnoff’s death. Chasnoff, whose credits include the Oscar-winning short documentary “Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment” and the LGBT-themed “It’s Elementary,” shaped “Prognosis” like a diary in which she details a hopeful, and then more realistic, view of her condition. Viewers see medical visits at University of California, San Francisco with Chasnoff and her wife, Nancy Otto. Chasnoff doesn’t want to know her prognosis. She intends to live life fully without the dire data, but also tries alternative healing approaches. When things are rosiest, “Chas” and Nancy go on vacation in Europe. Even when the picture darkens, Chasnoff embraces the world she’s built, enjoying her 60th birthday party. This documentary is a memoir with a mission to inspire people to talk about mortality, a loving look at LGBT families and deeply personal document of the death of a smart, funny, caring woman. Though it can be difficult to watch, it’s bound to move you. (Noon July 25, Castro; noon July 31 suggested streaming time) (A.K.)

Wet Dog: The teenage son of Jewish-Iranian immigrants to Germany tries to fit in with Muslim friends in multicultural Berlin neighborhood by denying his true identity, adopting the persona of a tagger named King Star, and pursuing the affections of an Arab girl, but his friendships, love and identity are all tested as he evolves to find himself in story based on a true-life person. (7 p.m. July 30 suggested streaming time) (J.A.T.)

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