The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — the longest-running Jewish film festival in the world — returned to the Bay Area this summer for its 43rd anniversary, celebrating a dynamic mosaic of Jewish cinema and culture in this year’s captivating lineup.
Kicking off on July 20 and running through Aug. 6, this year’s festival showcased the diversity, complexity and enduring spirit of Jewish life around the world in its vast array of short and feature-length films. With 67 films from 18 different countries, the SF Jewish Film Festival highlighted both established filmmakers and emerging talents whose stories, both timeless and contemporary, unfolded on the silver screen.
From comedies to dramas and historic recountings to modern documentaries, the SF Jewish Film Festival proved as provocative and enchanting as ever.
“A Compassionate Spy”
Theodore “Ted” Hall was an American physicist, one of many working on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
Except there’s a catch. While Ted may have been working on a project led by the U.S., he also became a spy for the Soviet Union, revealing a multitude of secrets about the project and development of the implosion bomb. Even after World War II concluded, the Cold War ensued and the Red Scare consumed America with great fervor, Ted lived his life quietly. Only in the ’90s did unsealed documents reveal his duplicity toward the end of his life.
The documentary “A Compassionate Spy” explores his life and his motivations for revealing such explosive secrets to the Soviet Union not only from the perspective of the many players directly involved in the story — as well as their descendants — but also through the eyes of his introspective, charming wife, Joan Hall. As the interviews progress and more archival footage is pulled, it becomes clear that Ted hadn’t become a spy for personal gain — but out of fear of the fallout of such a weapon’s development. Or, as Joan puts it, he did so out of compassion.
While the reenactments certainly don’t do the story justice in the way Joan’s riveting storytelling talents do, “A Compassionate Spy” emerges as a fascinating exploration of Ted’s life and his actions that, while controversial, grow to make more sense in this deeply contextualizing documentary.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade sparked debate across the country in 2022, with many Christians celebrating the reversal as a watershed moment in history — especially as pro-life Christian groups had played a major role in said ruling.
However, many Jewish individuals, guided by their own religious beliefs, are actively defending the legality of abortion. Rather than enforcing the perspective of one faith upon all others, these Jewish activists argue that freedom of religion should extend to all faiths, including Judaism, which traditionally permits abortion and emphasizes protecting the mother.
“Under G-d,” a short film, follows this recent battle that has emerged in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade’s takedown. Many activists across all faiths — who claim that the Supreme Court decision codifies this fundamentalist Christian perspective into law and undermines the separation of church and state — are coming together to file lawsuits and challenge what they view as a threat to democracy.
The short film succinctly guides viewers through the arguments of various activists — both Jewish and non-Jewish — who have taken up the fight against the Supreme Court’s decision. Through interviews, observational scenes and on-screen text, “Under G-d” is a quick and fascinating examination of an emerging interfaith social movement challenging the new legal status of abortion and the dangerous deconstruction of the separation of church and state.
“The Story of Annette Zelman”
The star-crossed lovers are a trope as old as time – a classic prototype of a couple that experiences true, blinding love only for the fates and forces to drive them apart. Based on a true story, “The Story of Annette Zelman” follows Jean Jausion (Vassili Schneider), a kind, Catholic boy with an eye for the arts, who falls in love with Annette Zelman (Ilona Bachelier), a quick-witted Jewish artist. As their love blossoms, it all comes crashing down as France deteriorates under Nazi occupation.
While Jean and Annette are head over heels, Jean’s socially conservative parents dismiss his love as mere infatuation. But as Jean proposes, underscoring his commitment, Jean’s father takes more drastic measures — to the point of contacting the Gestapo. Annette is arrested and whisked away in the blink of an eye, transferred between prison cells and camps. As Jean desperately tries to find a way to free her, their love is jeopardized by violent bigotries and the desire to turn a blind eye to it, their struggle rendered trenchant and continuous under the corrupt, authoritarian powers at work.
“The Story of Annette Zelman” investigates the tangible, human cost of hegemony and the instinct to be a bystander to it through the case of Annette Zelman: An investigation that remains as pertinent today as it did in the 1930s and ‘40s, as multiple nations across the globe seemingly backslide into far-right authoritarianism.
“Nina & Irena”
“And if there is any god, I don’t understand how He would let that happen.”
Nina Gottlieb, a Holocaust survivor, reflects on her experiences and loss in the Holocaust after almost 80 years of silence in the short documentary film “Nina & Irena.” Her family, who rarely heard her speak about her life during World War II, wasn’t even aware for a long time that Nina had an older sister — Irena Vogel. The two got along as many sisters do, caring for each other amid engaging in minor squabbles after Nina would eavesdrop on Irena’s talks with her friends.
When Jewish people began to be persecuted and the rumblings of war echoed across Europe, though, Nina and Irena’s family had to go into hiding. The family even obtained papers from a priest insisting they were training to convert to Catholicism. But this was not enough to spare their father — who was taken to a camp (though escaping later) — or enough to spare Irena — who disappeared without a trace, leaving to see if there was anybody left from their family.
Nina is witty, bantering with her grandson as he interviews her. She recounts her experiences, explaining why she hadn’t wished to talk about it for so long. Loss is a terrible thing, and Nina was forced to grapple with her sister’s disappearance as a child — always hoping she would return but growing to accept that that was not a possibility.
Poetically, “Nina & Irena” concludes with Nina’s 90th birthday party, with Nina yearning to spend her next birthday with her family. While Nina had suffered much loss and grief, she has still been able to find a way to forge a fierce life that Nazi persecution and genocide could not snuff out.
The conspiracy of a Jewish cabal — one that subjugates all other races — has been perpetuated for centuries.
This unfounded, bigoted conspiracy has been used as a connecting thread among many major world events over the past few centuries. The fabricated idea is the focus of the animated documentary “The Conspiracy,” with the film examining the roots of the Jewish conspiracy and its many tendrils through the eyes of three prominent Jewish families who were used as pawns.
This includes the Warburgs, a prominent banking family in Germany; the Bronsteins, a family in Ukraine whose son would change his name to Leon Trotsky; and the family of Alfred Dreyfus, the French military officer scapegoated and wrongfully imprisoned for treason. As “The Conspiracy” explores the lives and fates of the three families, they weave a terrifying image of how the conspiracy of a league of Jewish people vying for world domination has continually been sustained over time.
The fate of each is bone chilling, and the awareness of each knowing that it is their Jewishness that drives this fate is heartbreaking. As the film progresses through major historical events — the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War II — it builds up to the violent surge of antisemitic hate crimes in the modern day, such as the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. “The Conspiracy” unravels the nonsensical theory entrenched in centuries-long antisemitism, and the grotesque consequences of a conspiracy rooted in dehumanization.