Now Playing! SF Jewish Film Festival Hails Heroines and Villains

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A scene from 'Plan A'
'Plan A,' screening at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, is "an uncomfortable, fact-based interrogation of Jewish revenge in postwar Germany that puts the self-styled king of payback, Quentin Tarantino, to shame." (Getaway Pictures/SFJFF)

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) always seems to arrive at a moment of heightened intensity. This year it’s the faux controversy prompted by Ben & Jerry’s decision to cease sales to settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Access to ice cream doesn’t rank as high on my list of concerns as, say, global antisemitism, but fake outrage is a helluva drug.

Streaming online July 22–Aug. 1 and unspooling on the Castro Theatre’s big screen Saturday and Sunday, July 24 and 25, the festival program skips dessert to load up on serious subjects. If you treat film festivals as travelogues, the SFJFF will drop you in a veritable field of briar patches.

A scene from '200 Meters.'
A scene from '200 Meters.' (Courtesy Alaa Ali Abdallah)

The Castro slate begins Saturday morning with 200 Meters, Jordan’s entry for the International Feature Oscar and the festival’s centerpiece narrative. Ameen Nayfeh’s open-hearted though underwritten debut feature follows a law-abiding Palestinian family man who pays a smuggler to get him into Israel to see his hospitalized son. Another protagonist forced to take drastic action—a concentration camp inmate passing himself off as Persian—drives the opening night drama, Persian Lessons.

The nonfiction lineup at the Castro boasts the revelatory Sundance entry, My Name is Pauli Murray (opening in September before landing on Amazon Prime), about the extraordinary 20th century Black activist, writer, lawyer and priest(!). Fresh from Frameline, the wrenching Prognosis: Notes on Living follows San Francisco filmmaker Debra Chasnoff’s journey after her advanced cancer diagnosis. A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff—Song and Dance swaps verité for a poetic, personal approach, as Alicia Jo Rabins, with director Alicia J. Rose, expands her stage musical about the Ponzi villain through the medium of film.

A still from 'My Name is Pauli Murray.'
A still from 'My Name is Pauli Murray.' (SFJFF)

Mischa and the Wolves, a slick British doc that premiered at Sundance (and comes to Netflix Aug. 11), recounts the bizarre chain of events surrounding the 1997 U.S. publication of a French-set Holocaust memoir. Filmmaker Sam Hobkinson focuses on the stranger-than-truth aspects, maximizing suspense for entertainment’s sake while sidestepping the saga’s moral, real-world implications. Rounding out the SFJFF’s theatrical component is the recent restoration of The Light Ahead, one of four Yiddish-language films made in the 1930s by Hollywood outsider Edgar Z. Ulmer (Detour) on the East Coast.


Heading online, those seeking the “real movie” comforts of high production values and crisp plotting are directed to Powder Keg, Danish writer-director Ole Christian Madsen’s (Flame & Citron) slow-burn dramatization of the days leading up to a 2015 terror attack in Copenhagen. Spiraling around four men (including the shooter) on the cusp of major life changes, Madsen constructs a mournful mosaic of personal morality and individual sacrifice. Israeli brothers Yoav and Doron Paz’s big-budget Plan A is an uncomfortable, fact-based interrogation of Jewish revenge in postwar Germany that puts the self-styled king of payback, Quentin Tarantino, to shame. Starring August Diehl in a haunted performance with echoes of Willem Dafoe and Klaus Kinski, Plan A is a feature-length dark night of the soul.

Both films should receive theatrical runs in coming months, along with the terrific semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale Neighbours. Swiss-based Kurdish filmmaker Mano Khalil revisits his early-’70s childhood in the remote northeastern corner of Syria, where Baathist ultranationalism arrived before electricity. The future isn’t bright for little Sero and his Kurdish family, nor for the Jewish family next door, yet Neighbours (which received the S.F. Bay Area Film Critics Circle jury prize) affirms the values—and just maybe the triumph—of empathy, dignity and decency.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 22–Aug. 1 online and at the Castro Theatre. Details here.