There aren’t many US cities that can successfully host a ten-day film festival spotlighting the Jewish community, let alone keep it going for over two decades. San Diego is a happy exception, as the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, now running through February 14th for its 26th year, proves.
Presented by the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, Jacobs Family Campus, the festival will showcase a total of 60 films of the best contemporary Jewish-themed films from around the world. These narrative features, short films and documentaries celebrate life, human rights, and freedom of expression. The festival’s ongoing mission is to offer outstanding world cinema that promotes awareness, appreciation and pride in the diversity of the Jewish people to attendees of the community at large.
Each year’s event features an international roster of visiting guest artists, including actors, filmmakers, and scholars, who introduce their work, participate in panel discussions, and meet with festival patrons. Highlights this year include Dealing with the Devil, which examines the bizarre case of a Dresden art dealer of Jewish descent who was tasked by Joseph Goebbels with the job of seizing and selling off modern “degenerate” art and acquiring in its place the classical paintings favored by Hitler and his inner circle; The Price of Sugar, a story about two half-sisters and their life in eighteenth century Suriname; Sabena Hijacking: My Version, a suspenseful docudrama based on previously undiscovered audio recordings of former pilot Captain Reginald Levy; and the warmhearted comedy Dough, starring British actor Jonathan Pryce as a curmudgeonly widower who obstinately clings to his livelihood as a kosher bakery shop owner in London’s East End until it is challenged by a Muslim teenager.
Ironically, the film festival’s Executive Director since 2013, Craig Prater, is not Jewish but he is openly gay. Prater previously directed the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Bangkok International Film Festival, the LA Museum of Tolerance International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival. His obviously diverse cultural experiences combined with the staff’s hospitality helped him feel right at home when he started working for the San Diego Jewish Film Festival.
“I hadn’t been here two weeks when I was invited one day to a wedding in the Jewish Community Center building,” Prater shared recently. “What I didn’t know was that it was a same-sex wedding! A number of our staff, including our CFO, are members of the (LGBT) community.”
I asked Prater how he was called or led to his current position. “Well, San Diego is not a bad place to live for starters,” he replied, laughing. “I’d been involved for a gazillion years with Jewish film festival programming and this was a well-established, respected organization for 23 years when I started. I was also tired of traveling internationally, which I had been doing for many years.”
Indeed, following his 8-year tenure in Palm Springs, Prater was contracted to serve as the Executive Director of the Bangkok International Film Festival for the Royal Thai government. Over the next five years, he supervised the programming and special events for the largest international film festival in Southeast Asia. It hosted over 250 films each year and boasted a lavish awards gala honoring celebrities from around the world. The awards gala budget alone was over $1 million.
“Bangkok was the best international film festival I’ve ever been involved with due to its funding by the government and the Thai royal family,” Prater said. However, it was not without its challenges for him as a gay man. “Homosexuality there is accepted but not really acknowledged, although living there as a white American also had its challenges (laugh). I have nothing but good things to say though about the Thai people.”
This year’s edition of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival won’t feature many LGBT-themed movies but one offering of interest is Valley, a hard-hitting anti-bullying story involving a group of Israeli high school students. “I believe our (LGBT) community will feel very comfortable at this festival,” Prater concluded.
Single ticket prices for most films are $15.75. Jewish Community Center members receive a $2.00 discount on each ticket. Festival passes plus student, senior and group discounts are also available. For more information, call 858-362-1348 or visit the festival website.
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.