By Linda McIntosh
San Diego's first Jewish Film Festival began in a gym with a projector balanced on a ladder. Entenmann's cookies were served to a small crowd of about 100 at each of three films. Now 20 years later, the event has grown into a 12-day festival filling more than 16,000 seats at five theaters and featuring 51 films, making it the third-largest Jewish Film Festival in the country following Boston and San Francisco.
The 20th anniversary festival runs Feb. 10-21 at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center's David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre in La Jolla and four other venues in San Diego County.
The festival presents contemporary films by independent producers from around the world "celebrating life, human rights and freedom of expression."
"We hope the film festival fosters awareness and builds bridges among San Diegans and reaches beyond the Jewish community," said Sandra Kraus, festival producer. "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy the film fest."
Kraus and a committee of 12 people screened more than 250 films before narrowing down the 50 best. The films are not yet mainstream, but many are expected to be commercially released and several are being considered for Oscar nominations.
The films include the voices of movie stars such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, Helen Mirren and Toni Collette.
The films portray the Jewish experience from various perspectives, both current and historic.
"We want people to take away from the films that we have more in common than we have differences," Kraus said.
Along with showcasing dozens of feature length films, documentaries and short-subject flicks, the festival offers a chance to meet an international group of visiting guest artists, including actors, filmmakers and scholars who will introduce their works and join in panel discussions.
On Feb. 15, the annual Joyce Forum, named in honor of the festival's founder, Joyce Axelrod, will showcase Jewish-themed films by budding artists. The forum kicks off at 1:30 p.m. with five short films at the AMC La Jolla 12 Theatres.
Part Two begins at 4 p.m. with several more shorts, followed by the Joyce Jubilee, which is a tribute to Axelrod's vision in starting the festival and supporting emerging filmmakers.
The forum concludes with the 8 p.m. screening of "Off and Running" by San Diego filmmaker Nicole Opper, who was named by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the top 25 filmmakers in the U.S. to watch.
Here's a sampling of films from the San Diego Jewish Film Festival. For more, see www.lfjcc.org/sdjff.
'A Matter of Size'
The festival opens with this film about "a shy 340-pound man, Herzl, living with his mother in Ramle. He is fired from his job because of his unpresentable image, and dumped by his weight-loss group because he keeps gaining pounds instead of shedding them. He discovers that the one way fat guys can be rock stars is by sumo wrestling."
'Mary & Max'
"An animated feature film, inspired by the real-life experience of its Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam Elliot (Harvie Krumpet), this stop-motion feature portrays the 20-year pen pal friendship of Mary Dinkle (Toni Collette), a chubby, lonely 8-year-old from Melbourne, and Max Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an obese, isolated 44-year-old New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome."
'The Jazz Baroness'
"Voiced by Oscar winner Helen Mirren, the story tells about the dozen postwar jazz tunes named for 'Nica' in honor of the genre's most unlikely patron — British Jewish Baroness Pannonica, who left her family and wealth to follow her passion for jazz. To her family's horror, Nica (Mirren) sheltered and fed her talented black friends, bailed them out of jail, and even went to jail. She helped men like Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, and fell in love with jazz genius Thelonious Monk. Nica's great-niece Hannah Rothschild interviews luminaries including Quincy Jones and the Duchess of Devonshire to create a haunting answer to the 'puzzle of Pannonica.' "
'The Shadow Effect'
"In this groundbreaking film, New York Times best-selling author Debbie Ford exposes the perils and promise of the human shadow. Ford, a San Diegan and internationally acclaimed expert on the human shadow, has led thousands of people from around the world through her renowned Shadow Process Workshop. Deepak Choprah, Holocaust survivor Edie Eger and others make appearances in this life-altering journey film. After-film Q&A with Ford, who has appeared on 'Oprah' and 'Good Morning America.' "
'Eli & Ben'
"In Ori Ravid's debut feature film, Lior Ashkenazi ("Walk on Water") portrays Ben, the city architect of Tel Aviv suburb Herzilya. A role model to his adoring 12-year-old son, Eli, Ben is accused of taking bribes and arrested. Eli's world is turned upside down and he is forced to leave behind his childhood for a mature perspective on injustice, corruption and pretense. The film will be shown on closing night, Feb. 21, and at Teen Screen Night, 6 p.m. Feb. 16 at AMC La Jolla 12 Theatres; open to teens, ages 18 and under, with a pizza dinner at no charge."
San Diego Jewish Film Festival
- When: Feb. 10-21
- Where: AMC La Jolla 12 Theatres; UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center; Ultra Star at La Costa; Reading Carmel Mountain in Poway; and the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, Jacobs Family Campus, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla
- Tickets: $13.25 most films; $11.25 JCC members; $13-$15 opening, closing night films; $6-$7 DeJa View Fridays and $7.50 Shorts in Winter. Festival passes, discounts and group rates available.
- Information: (858) 362-1348, www.lfjcc.org/sdjff