Friday, July 31, 2009

DIASPORA BY THE BAY: SFJFF—The Evening Class Interview With Program Director Nancy K. Fishman and Program Coordinator Joshua Moore

As the 29th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) draws near to wrapping up at The Castro Theatre—its San Francisco venue—and continues on through August 8 at Berkeley's Roda Theatre and Palo Alto's Cinearts, I felt now would be a good time to present the first in a series of research interviews I'm entitling "Diaspora By the Bay." This research is for a paper I'm writing for the next volume of The Film Festival Yearbook, which hopes to explore issues of disaporic content and constituency within the film festival circuit. SFJFF Program Director Nancy K. Fishman and Program Coordinator Joshua Moore were the first to make themselves available for this research project. Peter Stein, the festival's Executive Director, was hard-pressed to launch the festival and apologized for not being able to participate.

Establishing straight off that SFJFF follows the now-standard non-profit model of film festivals, bolstered by public funding, private donations, and supplementary membership/box office income, Nancy Fishman also advised that SFJFF is the only Jewish Film Festival in the United States that receives money from the National Endowment for the Arts. Locally, they receive funding from the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund.

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Michael Guillén: There has been some scholastic indication that Jewish film festivals were the first to organize themselves internationally with regard to community outreach and collaboration amongst each other, rather than the more customary competition expected between film festivals. Certainly, as I reviewed this year's program for SFJFF, I was struck by the festival's community involvement.

Lately, when I read festival programs, I find myself less interested in the capsules—whose synoptic purpose I respect but whose promotional incentive I've come to distrust—and more intrigued by who is co-presenting and co-sponsoring the films. In laymen's terms, could you state the distinction between co-sponsorship and co-presentation?

Nancy Fishman: Sponsors give us money. We're very grateful to have their money and—especially with individual donors—it makes them feel more connected to the festival because they will often gather a crowd of their friends to come to the film they've sponsored. Co-presenters are the people who help us spread the world about a particular film. Basically, we try to match up films with groups that are organized, fit well with that film, or will help us reach a particular constituency. There are probably 60-65 co-presenters at this year's festival. They cover a spectrum. We try very hard to work with a variety. We work with both Jewish and non-Jewish groups, several film groups like the San Francisco Film Society and the Mill Valley Film Festival. At this year's festival, the Asian American Film Festival is co-presenting
A Matter of Size, a film about sumo wrestling in Israel. We also interact with groups across the political spectrum.

Guillén: I'm intrigued by SFJFF's diversity of co-presentation. Reviewing this year's program line-up, I saw more community organizations than consulates co-presenting programs. What is the nature of your festival's interaction with consulates?

Fishman: It's hard to get money from consulates. Consulates often fall inbetween sponsors and co-presenters because they don't have enough money to offer full sponsorship but they often will give us a little bit more. Last year, for example, we did a program on Italian Jews during the Holocaust and the Italian Cultural Institute gave us $5,000. That allowed us to bring in a 78-year-old Italian survivor from Auschwitz. This year the French Consulate—who has been hit by the same economic crisis as everyone else—gave money to the San Francisco International and to the Seattle International, who are part of their Northwestern purview. They try to give us help, sometimes through diplomatic pouches; but, we're not as big fry as the San Francisco International, so they don't give us the same amount of financial help. The Goethe Institut has always been very helpful to us, and sometimes the British Film Council, so we definitely work with them and have a friendly relationship. In the cases where we do a large program like last year's Italian program, we usually have been successful at getting more substantial funding.

Guillén: Without ongoing consular sponsorship, it's all the more remarkable what SFJFF has achieved through community outreach, addressing diasporic constituencies. For example, a year or so back SFJFF had a program on Ethiopian Jews. Quite honestly, until then, I didn't even know Ethiopian Jews existed. I interviewed Sirak Sabahat, one of the actors in that year's closing night film Radu Mihaileanu's Live and Become. I thoroughly enjoyed that revelatory conversation and have, since, begun monitoring how SFJFF constructs its programs to be inclusive of these disparate diasporic communities, both abroad and in the United States.

Joshua Moore: Speaking of Ethiopian Jews, at this year's festival we have an Ethiopian film called Zrubavel, based out of Israel. It's a wonderful film about a young boy who envisions himself as a Spike Lee film director and documents his family. His father is a street sweeper and the film shows this small Ethiopian community within Israel, thereby showing a diverse Israel.

Fishman: It's the first Ethiopian feature film made by an Ethiopian.

Guillén: The comment made about Jewish Film Festivals leading the pack in collaborative ventures and having an existing network they can rely upon, do you find that to be true?

Fishman: It's true to a certain extent, though I would say the Lesbian and Gay film festival circuit is incredibly organized. The Asian film circuit is a little bit smaller. The SFJFF was the first Jewish film festival in the world and now there are about 100 of them; 60 in the U.S. and 40 outside. The Jewish community already existed. If you think about the immigrant status of Jews in this country, Jews have been here for a long time, as opposed to some younger communities. There already was an infrastructure to some degree; but there have also been organizations that have played a role. Our's has been one of them. For a long time on our website we kept a list of other Jewish film festivals around the country and then the
Foundation for Jewish Culture—which is based in New York and used to be called the National Foundation for Jewish Culture—has every 2 years over the last 6-8 years convened a meeting a Jewish film festivals from around the country. That really helped Jewish film festivals get organized. But it depends in what context. I go to the Berlin Film Festival every year and programmers from the Jewish film festivals still have to read through every program note and decide: "Could that be Jewish? The name of the director is Jewish or the name of one of the characters is Jewish…." Usually, we all read through the program and meet for lunch and discuss, "What do you think of this one?"

Years ago, I used to work for Frameline, San Francisco's gay and lesbian film festival, and when I went to Berlin for them, it was the same thing. But now in Berlin the Panorama office, which is one of the sections of the Berlinale, they actually do all the work for the gay and lesbian programmers. When they arrive, they're handed a list of every single gay film in the festival so they no longer have to do that "underground" thing of meeting in cafes to determine, "Maybe this is. Maybe this isn't." The same thing is now happening at Sundance. The Sundance press office provides an entire list of GLBT films. Different diasporic film festivals are probably organized in different ways; but, I do think it's true that the Jewish community has an infrastructure in most of the cities where Jewish film festivals are venued. Some Jewish film festivals are part of an institution; the Seattle festival is part of the
JCC, for example. And some are independent like our's.

Guillén: It strikes me that SFJFF is commendably concerted in its effort to represent the diversity of the Jewish experience as expressed through diasporic content programmed for the festival. This year, by way of example, you have films addressing—as you mentioned earlier—the Ethiopian Jewish community within Israel, you have another about Argentine Jews, and yet another about the Australian Jewish community. How do you become aware of and acquire films with diasporic content? Do programmers from various Jewish film festivals recommend films to each other? Do you consolidate efforts to bring talent to your festivals?

Fishman: What film festival programmers do is not so different from what acquisition executives do, in that you have a tracking database. You look for films. We don't have very much money so we tend to only go to Sundance and Berlin, maybe one other film festival a year. I obviously wish we had the money to be flying all over; but, we don't. A lot of our programming is accomplished by looking at other film festivals—we keep a tracking list, a chronological calendar of festivals that we're interested in—and then Josh and I (more Josh, actually) go through and look at the websites of different film festivals. Of course, there are the key international film festivals: Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Tribeca, whatever. We also look at Jerusalem, Haifa, and Docaviv—the documentary film festival in Israel—and then we look at the program line-ups at other Jewish film festivals all over the world. We talk to other programmers. We definitely talk to the people at the UK Jewish Film Festival, the Amsterdam Jewish Film Festival, and the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. We also talk to programmers from mainstream film festivals and ask for advice. No one wants to do the work for you, but, you develop relationships over a period of time and you can ask about certain things. A lot of it involves maintaining relationships with filmmakers and distributors as well.

Guillén: With regard to interacting with other film festivals in the Bay Area—you've already mentioned a few—how does that collaboration work? Once you've solicited films, recognized their content, and decided to program them in your festival, do you then go through your rolodex to find the organizations or festivals that would best serve co-presentation? I'm trying to get a sense if there is a professional community of festival programmers whose collaboration is distinct to the Bay Area, in contrast to elsewhere. Also, in the process of interacting with other Bay Area film festivals, are you sharing content? Or costs to bring in talent? Or coordinating calendars to maximize the exposure of films and filmmakers in the Bay Area.

Moore: Yeah, there definitely is collaboration between film festivals in the Bay Area. As we mentioned, CAAM is co-presenting a film this year. We're in constant communication with the San Francisco International. If a film has played in another Bay Area film festival, and has already received a lot of press coverage, we will pass on it for our festival because it's already had its moment here. That's a consideration with all the film festivals, knowing what we are programming, so we don't schedule a film that has already played elsewhere.

Guillén: Whereas you do have a notable exception this year with Jenni Olsen's 575 Castro Street, which I believe has already shown at Frameline?

Moore: With shorts we're not so concerned about that. A lot of the shorts do play around. It's mainly feature films I'm talking about.

Guillén: I like how you acknowledge the importance of a film's "moment" within a festival. One of the avenues of film festival studies is an examination of the value of time and space and how it shapes festival experience. Time, and timing with regard to programming any given film for any given festival, speaks to the impact a film can have by being situated in any particular festival at any particular time.

Fishman: Most festivals want premieres.

Guillén: If a film you programmed in the festival is received well by your audiences, do you let other festivals know? Let's say the Seattle Jewish Film Festival was thinking of showing a film you've shown in your festival, would you tell them: "This film really worked for us and, even though it's not a premiere for you, it's worthy content"?

Fishman: I don't know what the San Francisco International's policies are now; but, most festivals want a Bay Area premiere. I don't know if the San Francisco International insists on a U.S. premiere for certain films. For a community-based festival like ours, I just want a Bay Area premiere because—in order to sell tickets—we receive so many films that it doesn't seem fair to give a slot to something that just played, y'know, a month earlier, with the exception of shorts.

There is a lot of communication between festivals. A lot of the programmers from other Jewish film festivals come to our festival; usually every year about 8-10 of them attend. We usually meet with them for bagels and coffee. People call and ask for advice. We don't have a print source list yet on the website so people are calling me and Josh every other day asking us to please send our print sources. The relationship between Bay Area film festivals is collegial. For example, if I go to a festival and I see something but I didn't end up picking it up for my festival, or even if it's not Jewish, I'll call one of my friends at Mill Valley and say, "This is great." I saw this film at Berlin this year about the slow food movement and I phoned Janis Plotkin—who now works at Mill Valley—and I said, "This would be a perfect Mill Valley film. I think people do that all the time.

We can't all show the same films and a lot of it is based on—for especially the more high quality films—that they're more likely to be bought by distributors or are in the middle of being sold. A lot of what films you get is based on the distributors and whether they want to give you the film and whether it fits into their release schedule. It's not that capricious. It's not that they like you or don't like you, or that you have such a great relationship with them or a terrible one. It helps if you've worked with a distributor year after year and also if you've helped them promote a couple of other films during the year; but, a lot of times it's whether it fits into their release schedule.

What distinguishes our festival from a lot of the other Jewish film festivals—not from all of them but a lot of them—is that we adhere to a tradition started by Janis Plotkin and Deborah Kaufmann, continued by Peter Stein who is the head of the organization and also programming, in selecting high quality films. Josh has only been here a year but one of the reasons I enjoy working with him is because he has fabulous taste in film. So we are excited about showing great films. But in terms of competing with other festivals for U.S. premieres, insisting—let's say—that Seattle can't show a film before us, that's not going to help either the film or the filmmaker. And it's not going to help us sell any more tickets.

We love it when we get a U.S. premiere; we're not so
kumbaya that we don't care about having some North American or U.S. premiere. It's always nice to tell the press that; but, we're not going to say to a film, "You can't play here because you played in Seattle three months ago."

Guillén: With regard to the spectacular dimension of your festival, how do you negotiate and secure talent?

Fishman: It's usually connected to a film. It's usually hard to bring talent if they're not in a film. It's expensive for community-based festivals to get high-level talent. It usually requires business or first class tickets and I always joke that—when you say the word business or first class—it's like saying "communism" to Senator McCarthy. We have gotten some high profile people here. We had
Gila Almagor here and she's the grand dame of Israeli cinema. We've had Amos Gitai who's a major international director. We do try to get high level talent here; but, it's not always easy. Sometimes it involves paying more money for a ticket.

Moore: This year we tried to get Natalie Portman to come because we found her directorial debut, a short film called Eve, which debuted at Venice last year, I believe. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get her.

Guillén: In negotiating for high-level talent, is that where collaboration with regional festivals and local organizations might help?

Fishman: It's very hard to organize. We brought two documentary filmmakers last year—the Heymann brothers—and we collaborated with a museum in Los Angeles. We shared the cost of their air tickets. But it's very hard to coordinate. Most stars want to come for just a day. I used to work in publicity so I've dealt a lot with talent. It can get very expensive and costly. They sometimes want to travel with a spouse or a friend and—though we usually have drivers hired by the festival, driving nice Toyota Priuses loaned to us thankful to Toyota San Francisco—that's not good enough. You have to get a limo to go pick them up at the airport. Some stars require hair and make-up. I've actually encountered stars who only have certain people work on their hair and face so then you have to fly in the hair and make-up person because it's not acceptable to get the best hair and make-up person in the Bay Area. It can get very expensive.

It's hard to collaborate. I think also because our festival is in the Summer, it's more difficult to collaborate with the universities. If we were situated in November, we could call the Jewish Studies Department at Stanford or—not even just Jewish—we could call the Mideastern contemporary, political or film department and say, "Would you like to split the cost?" We are collaborating with the Israel Center and the JCC to bring in Ari Folman in October. That's a case where three organizations said, "Let's split the cost for this." We're going to show Waltz With Bashir and bring him in.

Guillén: Thank you for those examples. I'm glad to hear such collaborations do exist. So once you've shaped your program with its diasporic content, I'm interested in how you then address diasporic constituencies to encourage them to come see the films? How do you get the word out to them, or do you even try?

Fishman: We certainly try. We have an outreach coordinator. We have marketing people. When we did the Ethiopian program, we distributed flyers and I believe we had them translated into
Amharic. I live in Oakland and personally went up and down to every Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland and dropped off flyers. With the Russian community, we occasionally translate fliers or emails and send them out. We've made an effort to reach the community. Not everybody is internet-savvy. For a while there some communities were more internet-savvy than others.

Guillén: So hypothetically then, on your rolodex you have listings of local organizations of specific diasporic identities that—when you get a film that has a particular diasporic theme—you're able to readily contact those people and access their mailing lists? And they're cooperative?

Fishman: Yes, they are. We even do co-presentations with the Arab Film Festival.

Guillén: I am much impressed with SFJFF's policy to maintain dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian communities.

Fishman: We enjoy it. They've co-presented films at our festival; we've co-presented films at their festival.

Guillén: I also admire SFJFF's awareness of the social activism potential in film. This year you're even sponsoring a panel "Reel Change: Social Justice Films" wherein social justice is examined as an element of Jewishness.

Fishman: With our help, Peter Stein curated that program. There was a range of high quality documentaries this year that dealt with different issues of social activism. I get a little uncomfortable personally when people talk about Jews having a monopoly on morality or the whole concept of
tikkun olam—healing the world—which is something that's deeply engrained in Jewish culture, both secular and religious. I don't believe we have a monopoly on it. I think other communities are also committed to social activism. Perhaps it's more recognized in Jewish culture? It's a tradition that a range of people in the community have been proud of. Peter has done an excellent job of maintaining a commitment to social activism; but, it started with Deborah and Janis. When the festival was founded, it was somewhat exclusive, whereas now we've become a part of the fabric of the Jewish and cinematic communities.

The festival was founded in reaction to the fact that there weren't many positive images of Jews on film, which is so ironic because there are a lot of Jews behind the Hollywood industry. Also because a lot of mainstream Jewish media didn't deal with either the conflict in Israel or Jewish GLBT representation. Both Janis and Deborah were not lesbian but were prescient and forward-looking in terms of actively pursuing gay and lesbian films to share with the Jewish community, which was pretty radical at that time. Twenty-nine years ago no one would imagine that the Jewish Community Federation would have a gay and lesbian section where people paid to go to this work. There have also been environmental films, like the work of Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl, 2002). Social activism covers a range; but, it is exciting and has always been a part of our festival. It's something we do well.

Guillén: In terms of press tiering, do you have different categories of press for your festival?

Fishman: No.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear that. I'm aware that many festivals have distinct accreditation for red carpet press assigned to handle celebrity journalism and "regular" press covering the films. But when press is accredited for your festival, they're on equal parity?

Fishman: Yes.

Guillén: And you don't play favorites with any local press?

Fishman: No.

Guillén: That's so nice to hear.

Fishman: It is nice. That's part of being a community-based festival. If we had Natalie Portman or Woody Allen, we'd probably get a red carpet—though we ordinarily don't have a red carpet—but, we wouldn't tier the press. We might engage in some more pomp and circumstance, but we wouldn't start tiering.

Guillén: SFJFF is clearly internet-savvy, how about distinctions between print and online press?

Fishman: We don't distinguish, in terms of amount of time we allow for interviews or access to films. Every accredited journalist is on Karen Larsen's press list. The only event where we sometimes don't have room for all of the press is opening night; but we set aside 55-70 tickets. The Castro is huge and it's very rare that press can't get in. All press can come to everything.

Guillén: Why do you use an external publicist rather than handle publicity in-festival?

Fishman: Because Karen Larsen is fabulous!

Guillén: She's the best in the business, isn't she?

Fishman: Also, it's very hard. During a film festival it's like trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle. We have so much work. There are times when Josh and Peter and I work 70 hours a week just trying to get everything done. I happen to have a PR background, but most programmers are savvy about it but don't develop the year-round relationships; that's another critical reason to hire an outside publicist. I talk to press people at a few festivals a year when I see them or during this crunch period of time, but someone like Karen is on the phone or email with everybody 10 times a day. It makes much more sense to hire a professional.

Guillén: As a festival, what do you expect or hope press will do for you?

Fishman: I hope that they would help us find an audience. I'm a practical person. I like press who are smart and do their homework because we've all worked very hard. Obviously, if you're writing for 7x7 you're writing a paragraph so I don't expect their writers to watch 20 films; but, I love it when press gets something. Occasionally—like when we did a program of Jews on the Hollywood black list—it's clear if a press person has read about the subject, thought about it, watched the films, and they write about them with insights we hadn't even thought about. That's exciting. I love working with press. They're usually smart and interested and excited about what they're working.

Guillén: In the shift towards digital formats—not only in how films are made and projected—but, in how press can access and preview a program line-up, I commend SFJFF for retaining literal press screenings where journalists can watch a film on a screen as it's meant to be seen. These days, however, most festivals are asking journalists to watch films on DVD screener, with which I'm conflicted. Do you ever fear that by asking press to watch films on screener, they're not actually seeing the film? And can't truthfully review it?

Moore: That's always a concern. We sometimes wish we could attach a webcam to journalists checking out screeners to see if they're genuinely sitting down to watch them or if they're doing their laundry and folding their socks while watching them.

Guillén: How did you know I was folding my socks while watching screeners? [Laughter.]

Moore: The hope is that—whether you watch a film on the small screen or the big screen—you can connect to it.

Guillén: I watch films on DVD screener to catch narratives and storylines; but, I often feel I'm not able to comment on the visual elements of a film, for fear that—as James Quandt recently articulated for me—I'm watching a facsimile. In terms of the shift to digital exhibition, roughly how many films in your festival are on celluloid?

Fishman: I would say maybe a third. It could be a little less.

Guillén: Have your audiences noticed or responded to that shift in technology? Do you think they're even aware that they're watching a digital projection?

Fishman: I would say this is where a community-based audience is maybe less savvy than an audience going to, let's say, the San Francisco International. There's HD and Digibeta, and they're looking better all the time, but I think audiences respond to archival prints, especially if the film is not available on DVD. If you actually list the film as an archival print in the program, or that it's a recently-struck new print, audiences are excited. Audiences still recognize the depth of film.

Guillén: That's another thing I've been observing about the spectacular dimension of film festivals: it's not only about scoring talent, but frequently archival prints. The prints themselves have become like movie stars and you half expect cans to come walking up the red carpet.

Fishman: I went to see Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence when it played at the Castro and they had the guy from the UCLA film and television archive come up to talk about the film for five minutes. Here's a guy who's normally behind a desk who suddenly has his five minutes of glory and he was very articulate. It was exciting to hear him talk about how they restored the print. The audience was rapt and hanging on every word. So I agree with you. People who are veteran cineastes have a taste for knowing what that is and how it's changing.

Guillén: When I recently discussed this with James Quandt, he mentioned that familiarity with DVD commentaries has created a necessity for exhibition "add-ons", either talent, parties, scholars….

Fishman: Value added.

Guillén: Has SFJFF felt a need to satisfy that appetite?

Fishman: Yes, to some extent.

Moore: Within our budget, we try to get as many filmmakers as we can, especially for the discussions afterwards. Q&As are what make a film festival more of an event than just going to a movie.

Guillén: How do you go about structuring what you're going to program? I imagine it's a piecemeal process? You've mentioned you attend festivals and catch films there, or gather recommendations from colleagues?

Fishman: All festivals could do a better job. We could too. Sometimes you end up doing retrospectives or sidebars based on zeitgeist. Suddenly you realize there's a whole bunch of films about Ethiopian Jews. That was actually the case that year with the program on Ethiopian Jews. We did not set out to do that program. We just suddenly realized we had several films on the topic, and they were new and important to showcase. Some years we plan programs in advance. For example, the program on the Jews on the Hollywood black list, the one on Jewish boxers, last year's program of Italian Jews during Fascism, sometimes you realize you have a group of films that fit together in a certain way. For the larger events like the Freedom of Expression Award where we're doing a filmmaker retrospective, we really need to plan in advance. Sometimes it's really the programmer's interest because you're slaving away sending emails back and forth and sometimes you need something that excites you. This year Josh created an animation program. When he hired on he said he wanted to do an animation program and I said, "Go for it."

Moore: "Jewtoons" is the first-ever collection of animated shorts; 15 shorts from Israel and the States. Several of these animators are coming out of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and the Minshar School of the Arts in Tel Aviv and they are the future of the animation world. This last year—with Waltz With Bashir being released as the first Israeli animation feature and all the accolades that went along with that—it got me thinking of all the animation in Israel that we don't know about. These young animators coming out of these schools are doing tremendous work and, hopefully, that's indicative of the "Jewtoons" program.

Guillén: Without going film by film, can you state what you are most excited about with this year's festival?

Fishman: I'm excited about Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the documentary by Aviva Kempner. Some filmmakers make tons and tons of film but she hasn't made that many films—maybe four or five—but they've taken 10 years to research. Her documentary on Hank Greenberg was also like that. Aviva's done a great job with Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. We're actually showing four archival episodes of The Goldbergs, a television series from 1946-51. I watched about 15-20 episodes and narrowed it down to these four.

Guillén: As a curatorial aside, where did you find those television episodes?

Fishman: Some were housed at the Jewish Museum in New York and some at UCLA's Film and Television Archive.

Guillén: And you, Joshua? Other than your animation program, is there something else you're really excited about?

Moore: I'm excited about our music program actually, which is called the Puppet Folk Revival "Rockin' Puppet Mayhem." It's based off of street performers in Tel Aviv who performed folky-rock songs as puppets. It caught on and they developed a TV show about it called Red Band, about a struggling musician who can only play in Israel because he's so burnt out everywhere else—a '60s rocker washed up—and it's kind of South Park humor meets The Muppets, with Spinal Tap elements.

Guillén: This is the live performance?

Moore: Yes.

Guillén: What is the role of a live performance in a film festival?

Moore: That's a good question. Like Nancy said, it's the value added. It's something else to offer people beside a film. Obviously, it has to have a relation to film and Puppet Folk Revival will have media that they'll be showing as part of their performance. It's more than just a music event.

Guillén: Another "add-on" that I'm finding has become popular among Bay Area festival programmers is the token, free-to-the-public open air screenings. I note that SFJFF is co-presenting an open air screening of Manhattan with the San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation. Have you done open air screenings before?

Fishman: We have not. It's exciting and should be fun. Hopefully it will be warm that night.

Guillén: The only drawback in San Francisco.

Moore: As Nancy was saying, when we start to program all the films, we notice patterns and evolving themes, and one of those this year was coming-of-age stories, films that focused on teens or people in their early 20s discovering their sexuality or overcoming family tragedies, so we've included several of those films, many of which are from first-time directors.

Guillén: Federico Veiroj's Acné is in that group. Which leads me to another question. Acné premiered last year in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and then touched down on North American soil at the Toronto International where I found myself wondering who would pick it up for the Bay Area. Would it be the San Francisco International? The Jewish Film Festival? The International Latino Film Festival? It could have been programmed in any of those festivals. How is that negotiated between Bay Area festivals? Do you put out an alert: "I have dibs on Acné?"

Fishman: No, no, no. Sometimes there is some conversation between festival programmers about a film; but, it's rare. Mostly, we just all try for it. My guess is that—with the San Francisco International—it wasn't on their radar or they didn't like it, who knows? Sometimes—with some of the larger film festivals where some of the programmers are more conscientious or may have worked in a community-based festival before—I have called and said, "I want this film for my opening night. Would you consider not going after it?" Some programmers have been very responsive.

Guillén: Interesting. I would say that the programmers with the San Francisco International are "personality" programmers who choose films largely based upon their personal likes and dislikes. You can almost bet that if there's a Latin American film in the festival, it will be a slow-moving character-driven narrative because that's what Linda Blackaby likes. That's a generalization for purposes of discussion and, of course, more power to SFFS. However, what I admire about SFJFF is that it appears the programmers are making efforts to cater to your community. You don't program just what you like.

Fishman: That's what's different about programming for a community-based festival. You have an obligation to think about what the community is interested in. If you program a lesbian and gay film festival and you're interested in slow experimental films but never show a transgender film, you will eventually hear from your community that you're not serving them, or serving part of them. With good reason. The community supports us. As a film festival, we're not beholden to them; but, if you're truly part of the community, you need to keep in mind what people are interested in seeing.

Moore: That being said, we're still looking for the best quality of films that are out there and available. We might not program a film on orthodox Jews simply because there's not one we feel is strong enough. We don't want to throw one in just because we don't have an orthodox Jew film.

Guillén: In terms of new digital platforms, can you talk about SFJFF's New Media Initiative?

Fishman: Yeah, we launched the New Media Initiative when we received some funding from the Righteous Persons Foundation. The New Media Initiative has several components. We are now streaming a short film every month online.

Moore: We debuted with two shorts, which will be up until the end of July. After that there will be a new short every month. The first two are also showing in the festival but it's a chance for people to watch the full version on our website and, hopefully, that will get them excited about the other shorts that we've programmed in the festival this year. One of them is an Israeli animated short called Escapism and the other is a Hungarian short called With A Little Patience.

Guillén: What prompted or motivated the New Media Initiative?

Fishman: The whole world is going in the direction of digital media. It was forward-thinking of Peter Stein.

Guillén: He's pretty smart, isn't he?

Fishman: He's very smart. He didn't want to miss the boat. Over a year ago, he convened a group of new media/new technology people for a visioning session and then he applied for the funding from the Righteous Persons Foundation and received it. It's a phased project. Years ago you could browse our archive, but now it's been updated so that you can browse the entire archive of 1,200-1,400 films that we've shown in the festival over all 29 years. You can look at photos and eventually what we would like to do—though we're not going to go into distribution—we'd like to point people to print sources or advise if the film is available on Amazon, Netflix, or whatever. But it's an exciting resource to be able to search the films by country, language or a specific actor. With most film festival websites, when you want to look up a film that's been programmed in a previous festival, you have to play the shell game and figure out first what year it was in, etc.

Guillén: Does this resource include program capsules?

Fishman: Yes, it does. If someone's doing research 50 years from now, it will be great to look at a film—whether it's Acné or a more political film like Rachel—and compare the program notes from 50 different film festivals, some that were Jewish, some that weren't, to see what people say about it.

Guillén: My final question concerns volunteers. How do volunteers help you run this community-based film festival?

Fishman: We couldn't do it without them. We have more than 200-250 volunteers. We screen at four different venues so we do volunteer solicitation in each community. We gather in our volunteers and do volunteer training. They help us before the festival with office administrative work. They help us by distributing catalogs and the whole marketing effort. And then they help us during the festival taking tickets, showing people their seats, everything. We absolutely couldn't do SFJFF—it couldn't function—without volunteers.

Guillén: Does SFJFF offer internships to young people wanting to break into film festival management?

Fishman: We do. In fact, right now we have probably five or six interns. Sometimes it's for college credit. We have one PR intern right now who goes to Hampton University in Virginia and she's getting college credit by working with us. Some people intern as a way to understand how the festival works. I did some internships when I was younger and the worst thing is to show up and have nothing to do so it's important for a festival to structure its internships so that their interns have something interesting to do.

Guillén: Do you consider SFJFF the mothership of all Jewish film festivals?

Fishman: I'd call it the grandmother of all Jewish film festivals.

Cross-published on


Brian Darr said...

Fascinating interview, Michael, as always.

One quote begs for clarification, however: "It's the first Ethiopian feature film made by an Ethiopian." Really? I can't pretend to be an expert on Ethiopian cinema but how can this be?

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for the query, Brian. I took SFJFF to mean that it's the first Israeli film on an Ethiopian Jewish subject directed by an Ethiopian Jew. That's how I understood it.

Michael Hawley said...

Michael, thanks so much for this engaging look behind the curtain of a major Bay Area film festival. I can't wait to read the others you have planned for this series.

Nancy Fishman, who is stepping down as SFJFF Program Director, will be greatly missed!

Michael Guillen said...

Indeed she will. I mean to follow-up with her to determine what her plans are. And it has not escaped my attention that--in as many years--this is the third time I've interviewed a programmer just before they've given up the post.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I've been tardy in keeping up with your posts. As a journalist, my mother had done some writing on Ethiopian Jews. Some of her last writing was on the descendants of "conversos", Spanish Jews, living primarily in New Mexico.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for stopping by, Peter. Interesting about your mom's work. What kind of journalist was she? Did she write about the evacuations of the Ethiopian Jews into Israel?