Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

San Diego Jewish Film Festival

"We like to start and end the festival on a happy note," says Ilise Gersten Bush, the newly employed curator of the SDJFF, " Sixty Six , is a quirky coming of age comedy while Making Trouble , our closing night picture, is a documentary about Jewish women comedians including Joan Rivers and Gilda Radner. I used to pretend to be these women when I was a child performing in my living room, so for me, the film was pure delight."

The women of Rachel Talbot's documentary Making Trouble (JWA Productions)

These titles provide perfect bookends to the festival, highlighting the kind of warm family film and quality documentary work that the SDJFF excels at finding. And finding those films is what Gersten Bush was hired earlier this year to do.


"Curator is a new position at the festival,” says Gersten Bush, “It really entails all that is fun about the Festival. I help find films for us to consider, select films, and entice guest artists and speakers to attend. Then, I am very active in the making of the brochure, dealing with distributors, filmmakers, and making sure the films actually get to our Festival. All the way, of course, I’m aided by a well-oiled selection and Film Festival committee."

Gersten Bush comes to her position as curator from a background in journalism. She worked as a journalist for many years, mostly in Paris, reporting from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. It was there that she made several documentaries. San Diegans may remember her as a KPBS Radio on-air announcer back in 2002. But just as she enjoyed bringing the news to San Diego listeners, she’s thrilled to now bring films to local audiences. This year’s festival showcases dozens of Jewish themed films from around the world. There will even be a sneak peak of an Israeli miniseries called A Touch Away, that Gersten Bush says, "will have you begging for more."

The festival also brings in actors, filmmakers, and scholars who introduce their work, participate in panel discussions, and meet with festival patrons.

"The festival brings together excellence in cinema with post film discussions during a glorious eleven days in a community environment. The films that we show are not available to the average moviegoer or Netflix devotee. Without us, audiences would probably never get a chance to see these movies."


The Diary of Niclas Gheiler screens on February 12 (George Aguilar)

Sixty-Six, which stars Helena Bonham Carter as Bernie’s mum, is the kind of quirky coming of age film that might receive wider release after the festival. But others films are less likely to be seen outside a festival venue. One that's unlikely to screen anywhere else is George Aguilar's Diary of Niclas Gheiler . The UCSD graduate calls his experimental film a “cinematic mash-up.”

"A mash-up," Aguilar says, "is just being able to take bits and pieces of footage from different films and putting them together in order to tell a completely new story.”

Aguilar employs materials culled from the Internet Archive -- a public database of stills, movies and public domain footage -- to weave a story spanning two decades beginning in 1918. The new story he tells is based on an old one, that of Aguilar’s grandfather who fought in the Great War along side a young Adolf Hitler. Aguilar chooses to place text of his grandfather’s diary on screen rather than having an actor read from it.

"I decided to go with, rather a professional voice, was to do something with the text that was poetic," says Aguilar, "and almost to the form that was comfortable for people who like to read books and allow them to read these as in chapters so they can get drawn into the film better.

So Aguilar combines silent images with text and sound to create a poetic, mesmerizing, and deeply personal take on history. This is a gem worth seeking out at the festival.

Another documentary displaying a creative approach is Hava Volterra’s Tree of Life . Her film looks to Jews in ancient Italy as she researched her father’s family history. But with little footage from that time period she had to be resourceful.

"What I did was use animation," says Volterra, "We did one sequence that was done in Monty Python style and that’s what we did for Renaissance Florence. And then we used marionettes for another sequence for Venice for the period of the Merchant of Venice. So we got creative."

Creative takes on personal narratives are a mainstay of the festival. But the SDJFF has also focused on films dealing with the conflicts in the Middle East, and this year they continue to explore this complex issue.

" Encounter Point and Six Days deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Beaufort [which just received a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination] is about the Israel-Lebanon War,’ says Gersten Bush, “I don’t think we pursue complex contemporary issues in the films we choose, but it seems that often excellent Jewish-themed films contain complex contemporary issues. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one these major issues that filmmakers, Israeli or not, do not shy away from."

The Israeli films selected this year also highlight the social upheavals in the region. Galilee Eskimos, Jellyfish, Three Mothers, Aviva My Love , and Paying for Justice are Israeli films that all deal with the changing nature of Israeli society.

Yevgenia Dodina, here seen in Mr. Waldman, will be at the festival. (NCJF)

Another lively addition to this year's event will be the appearance of internationally respected Russian actress Yevgeniya Dodina who will present screenings of two of her films, Dear Mr. Waldman and Love and Dance, and her Israeli television series A Touch Away.

Gersten Bush adds, "With the addition of my position, we hope to have more year-round programming. There are so many great films that we have not been able to show in the past, but now we hope to incorporate more of these throughout the year in very special events. For example, in April we are screening His People, a 1925 melodrama in Yiddish theatre tradition, at the newly restored Balboa Theatre downtown. It's a great film, and it will be accompanied by a live Jazz band. It’s going to be a fantastic experience, and the biggest event in our Festival's history."

But for now there is the big event of the 18th San Diego Jewish Film Festival. With a diverse array of films, there is bound to be something to please everyone. So go and enjoy! Films will screen at the AMC La Jolla 12 Theatres, UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center, Poway Creekside Plaza 10 and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. For information call 858-362-1348 or visit