From its earliest year, the Festival has discovered and nurtured international cinematic talents such as Amos Gitai, Dani Levy, and Peter Forgacs, sometimes long in advance of their discovery by mainstream international festivals. Nationally, the SFJFF has been an important theatrical launching pad for successful features and documentary films, such as God Is Great And I’m Not, Promises, Strange Fruit, Trembling Before G-D, Hiding And Seeking, and The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg. Filmmakers exploring Jewish themes often start their careers by having a short film in the SFJFF and many of them return to the SFJFF with feature length documentaries and narratives.
An epicenter for Jewish film
In 2002, the Festival completed its move into a permanent space, the 9th Street Independent Film Center in San Francisco, which the Festival co-owns in a unique non-profit collaboration with its media arts partners Frameline, the Center for Asian American Media, and the 9th Street Media Arts Consortium. This move opened up the doors for new programming and resource collaborations with the media arts community and a new home that would secure the Festival’s future in San Francisco.
After 21 years of leadership, Janis Plotkin stepped down in 2003 and Peter L. Stein, a Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker and television producer, was appointed the organization’s Executive Director. Stein’s involvement with SFJFF began early on at KQED, where he was an advisory board member of “The Living Room Festival,” and he later was a member of SFJFF’s Board of Directors. Under Stein’s tenure, which extended through 2011, the SFJFF welcomed both tradition and transformation. As a festival, SFJFF continued to honor the organization’s long-standing respect for independent film, its willingness to explore sensitive political issues, its groundbreaking thematic programming, and its commitment to seeking out and curating world-class films. Nancy K. Fishman (who had served as the Festival’s publicist from 1996-1999) joined the staff as Program Director in 2003 and continued in that capacity through the 2009 Festival. She was succeeded in 2010 by the current Program Director, Jay Rosenblatt, a longtime Bay Area independent filmmaker and educator.
During the 2000’s, SFJFF expanded its year-round role as a champion of Jewish-themed film to diverse audiences, and widening the accessibility of its programs and mission. SFJFF inaugurated its annual Freedom of Expression Award given during the festival (given to such trailblazers as Dani Levy, Sayed Kashua and Kirk Douglas)…expanded its year-round service to youth and young adults through the New Jewish Filmmaking Project…launched a series of free screenings in local senior residences (affectionately nicknamed “mitzvah screenings,”)…and established the Jewish Film Forum, whose members support the mission and programs of SFJFF. Through its annual programs and summer festival, SFJFF continued to welcome some 35,000 audience members annually to its theatrical programming.
Recognizing the dynamic shifts in the way audiences view, share and create media in an increasingly digital and interconnected environment, in 2009 SFJFF launched its New Media Initiative, seeking to bring SFJFF’s groundbreaking model of curation, context and community to the online world. The first phase included a searchable database of 1400 SFJFF films, plus educational curricula and streaming media, including a monthly showcase of free online short films that has attracted more than 1.7 million views.
In 2010, SFJFF was named one of the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in the U.S. by the Slingshot Fund, and was listed by IndieWire as among the top 50 film festivals worldwide — accolades that confirm and bolster SFJFF’s commitment to sustaining its leadership position at the intersection of media arts and Jewish culture worldwide.
When Peter Stein stepped down in 2011, educator and award-winning independent filmmaker Lexi Leban took over as the new Executive Director.
JFI Executive Director Lexi Leban and Gideon Raff, SFJFF33
A longtime member of the Bay Area film community, Leban worked in all aspects of film, from production to distribution to exhibition. In addition to her knowledge and commitment to high-quality programming and issues of importance to a diverse community, Leban brought hands-on experience as a filmmaker and a breadth of experience as an educator working with young filmmakers and new media. The former Academic Director of the Digital Filmmaking & Video Production at the Art Institute of California and creator of their Bachelor’s degree program, Leban placed a new emphasis on providing artists services and support for both emerging and established filmmakers.
Under Leban’s leadership, SFJFF awarded its first filmmaker residency in 2012. The Filmmaker Residency program provides filmmakers with a private office and access to the screening room in the Ninth Street Independent Film Center; promotional support through social media and online publications; and a Meet & Greet with Bay Area’s film industry professionals.
In 2013, SFJFF partnered with the independent-movie distribution company Film Movement to create the SFJFF Film Movement Award to honor the best achievement in short films focusing on Jewish themes. The award also includes an option for a nonexclusive distribution deal with Film Movement and release on DVD.
The Creation of the Jewish Film Institute
After more than three decades as the leading curatorial voice for Jewish film and media, Leban, the Board and staff of SFJFF decided it was time for a new name that better reflected the evolution of the organization and the services they were providing to filmmakers and audiences in the Bay Area and beyond.
In 2015, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival became the Jewish Film Institute (JFI). JFI would still present the annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival – which would retain the original name – but the organization now had a name that encompassed the entirety of their efforts and better reflected their status as a global leader in the field of media arts.
Seeking to grow both its national and international audience base, Leban continued to expand JFI’s online presence with the launch of JFI On Demand which debuted, along with the new Jewish Film Institute website, in the summer of 2015. With an initial offering of 35 titlesnate, JFI expects to eventually build a library of more than a thousand films, creating access to Jewish films to the widest possible audience worldwide.
We hope you will join us as we write the next chapter of our history.
[SFJFF gratefully acknowledges Deborah Kaufman and Janis Plotkin for their contributions to writing this history.]