Streamlined SF film festival focuses on family features

SFFILM Director of Education Keith Zwölfer finds movies that appeal to kids


In the early days of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the names of directors Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and the lesser-known Andrei Tarkovsky were splashed across the marquee at the Metro Theater on Union Street.

Go ahead and sigh while I lose myself in a daydream of what it must have been like to experience truly epic cinema on the big screen, to be among a full house, genuinely excited to be there, dressed for a night on the town. Perhaps there was a cocktail to be had in North Beach, an after-party to attend on Nob Hill or a late night burger at the Hippo — maybe all three, because that’s how they say it was done in the city that knew how.

Now cue the montage sequence of the festival’s history: Look, there’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder and “Querelle,” Spike Lee and “She’s Gotta Have It,” Jim Jarmusch and “Dead Man” and tributes to Mira Nair, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, the list goes on. Perhaps you remember when Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails took center stage at the Castro for the premiere of “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” a couple of years ago…

And cut, back to our present reality and to the second pandemic edition of the SFFILM Festival, which opened Friday and runs online and at Fort Mason Center’s drive-in through April 18.

“What I’ve learned is there are ways to adapt,” said Keith Zwölfer, SFFILM’s director of education, who oversees the arm of the festival that takes movies and filmmakers into schools and students to theaters.

“While I would prefer to be in person and with families,” he said, “We’re still trying to find the best films we can to connect with kids.”

Ever since those heady days of the late ’50s and early ’60s when the formerly named San Francisco International Film Festival established itself as the premiere American festival for international and independent films, The City has remained a hospitable place for global cinema. For 64 years, the organization has served to enlighten at least three generations of cinephiles and for the last 30 years, it’s been committed to educating young filmgoers on the art of cinema — for free.

“We’re creating the audiences of the future,” said Zwölfer. The streamlined festival is offering a mixture of streaming links and drive-in screenings this year, much of it fit for family viewing — like the April 11 offering, “Lily Topples the World,” centered on the work of the young Asian American domino artist and YouTube sensation, Lily Hevesh.

“It’s an inspirational story of a young woman in a unique world that’s male dominated,” said Zwölfer, “And she becomes a superstar of her world by following her passion. The stuff she creates is artistic and it involves engineering, math and science. A media teacher or math teacher or physics teacher could teach it.”

“Lily Topples the World” is among the family-friendly features in this year’s SFFILM Festival lineup.<ins> (Courtesy SFFFILM)</ins>

“Lily Topples the World” is among the family-friendly features in this year’s SFFILM Festival lineup. (Courtesy SFFFILM)

Among its educational resources, SFFILM often has accompanying curricula that’s made available to educators and the public through its website. The program helps interested students develop discernment around media consumption while allowing them to explore their own tastes.

“Teenagers are marketed to, but there’s so much else out there that’s great for their age group,” said Zwölfer. “Let them see it and make their own choices,” he said (though families looking for immediate suggestions may enjoy Pete Nicks’ film, “Homeroom,” about Oakland High School’s graduating class of 2020, screening April 16 at the Fort Mason Center drive-in).

“The Bay Area is much more of a film community than it was when the festival started. We want to highlight the amazing work happening here in the Bay Area,” said Zwölfer, mentioning that the festival offers foreign language programming for children. For age 5 and up he suggests “Mum is Pouring Rain,” a 30-minute animated French film that grapples with emotional and mental health, paired with two animated buddy pictures from the U.K.: “The Snail and the Whale” and “Zog and the Flying Doctors,” as a gateway to world cinema. It’s not Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” but top-flight animated films may contribute to a child’s developing love of cinema and create “an awareness of the wider world,” Zwölfer said.

Zwölfer arrived to The City 17 years ago, though he wasn’t drawn by its reputation as an independent film hub or magnate for international movies. Nor did he come to pursue a career as a film educator, though he always had a passion for the arts.

“I grew up outside of Chicago but my parents were city people and we would go and see theater, classical, blues and jazz performances,” said Zwölfer.

“My dad worked for Illinois Bell and did community theater,” he said. “I wasn’t sure the arts was a field I wanted to go into.” Opting for the study of kinesiology, he tried working for Disney in Florida, guiding tours of its animation studios.

“I was always interested in learning about the arts, different perspectives in the world,” he said. When he and his wife, Anne Hunter, moved to Cole Valley, it was she who suggested, “You should pursue what you want to pursue.”

Zwölfer started by volunteering at nonprofits, “usually music, dance and theater. I got a taste of some wonderful organizations,” he said, but it was a volunteer opportunity turned internship with the then-named S.F. International Film Festival that landed him a job.

“It was the right place and the right time,” he said. “It’s allowed me to embrace all of the passions I have. I could be working with an animator, and an actor, one day and with a social justice lawyer in a documentary another day. I have an opportunity to do just as much learning as the students in the program,” he said.

In 1991, Washington High School teacher Robert S. Donn initiated the organization’s in-school program, in essence a field trip for classrooms during the festival. The project has since evolved to serve over 15,000 students and teachers from throughout the Bay Area with not only screenings and streaming opportunities, but with hands-on education in filmmaking.

Director Sergio Pablos, producer Jinko Gotoh, director Carlos Martínez López, and SFFILM Director of Education Keith Zwölfer appear at a screening of the animated film “Klaus” at the Castro on Nov. 17, 2019. (Courtesy SFFILM)

Director Sergio Pablos, producer Jinko Gotoh, director Carlos Martínez López, and SFFILM Director of Education Keith Zwölfer appear at a screening of the animated film “Klaus” at the Castro on Nov. 17, 2019. (Courtesy SFFILM)

“Not every kid is going to become a storyteller or filmmaker,” explained Zwölfer, but, “a small group that come out of our program do.” He noted Talbot, director of the award-winning 2019 film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”

“He has a close connection to SFFILM,” said Zwölfer. “One of his shorts screened in the youth program and he’s committed to giving back.”

In addition to bringing filmmaking professionals into schools, the education department works closely with Lucasfilm and San Francisco Unified School District, as well as with private schools and homeschoolers.

“I have the benefit of being a parent here and know how hard it is for families to find family programming that’s accessible and at no cost to the audience,” said Zwölfer. He and Hunter’s daughters Lucy and Maggie attend AP Giannini Middle School and Grattan Elementary, which participate in Schools At The Festival.

“The more teachers know about it, the more families participate,” said Zwölfer, who’s missed the in-person sessions during the pandemic, but has found the workarounds have advantages of their own.

“Having an opportunity to offer something online allows for accessibility to schools who wouldn’t normally be able to experience it and to reach classrooms in a different way. It’s a nice balance,” said Zwölfer of streaming versus moviegoing in a normal year.

He’s confident that despite the downturn in theater business, there will always be room for live people filling a darkened room, anticipating a show.

”I can’t wait to be back in the theaters. I think that option will still always be there,” said Zwölfer. “There’s nothing like being in the theater, being in community. I think people will rush back as soon as they can.”


Lily Topples the World

Presented by: SFFILM Festival

Where: Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.

When: 6:30 p.m. April 11


Note: The festival’s dozens of films also screen online through April 18.

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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