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."