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SF Jewish Film Festival Controversy Heats Up

Last night was the opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, with a pre-party featuring fancy latkes (figs and goat cheese! Tuna-topped latkes!) and an opening night screening of an Australian coming of age comedy. But the buzz was about the midday screening this coming Saturday of the Israeli documentary Rachel.

The film is about the life and death of Rachel Corrie, a 22-year-old American activist who was killed while attempting to stop an Israeli military bulldozer from leveling homes in Gaza. There is, of course, debate as to whether the killing was an accident or intentional. The Koret Foundation, and other Bay Area Jewish groups are outraged that the festival would show this film and that – worse – they have invited Rachel’s mother to speak after the screening.

Some at the opening night party were bracing themselves for what they expect to be a full-on protest at the Castro Theater on Saturday. Before last night’s screening of Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger, (a not at all good film, eensily helped by Toni Collette’s teeny role,) Festival executive director Peter Stein alluded to the uproar with humor and, without mentioning Rachel added that seeing films with different viewpoints wasn’t a bad thing. But three days ago, he released a statement apologizing “for not fully considering how upsetting this program might be.” He added that the festival stands by its decision to screen the film.

Prior to that, the Koret Foundation had released a statement saying (among other things) that, while saddened by the loss of life, “presenting the story of a girl who put herself in harm’s way in no way advances our community dialogue. In fact, it threatens our community purposes.” Most of all they take issue at the invitation extended to Cindy Corrie, the mom of Rachel Corrie. “We are appalled,” continues the Koret statement, “at the film festival’s decision to invite Cindy Corrie into our community. This bereaved mother cannot help but have a negative bias toward Israel. Why would a Jewish organization hand her a microphone and a soapbox from which to condemn Israel as Jewish audiences are expected to sit and listen politely? There is no possible counterbalance to a grieving mother.”

This urging to muzzle the mom for fear that sympathy might threaten Israel is disturbing. But Stein, in an effort to quell the outcry and balance the debate, has now invited pro-Israel activist Michael Harris to speak just before the Castro screening. Documentaries for the most part, express opinionated, single-minded points of view. And festivals frequently invite the filmmakers or film subject to discuss the film. They are film festivals, not debate forums. That an outside organization should attempt to tamper with a film festival’s programming is beyond the pale. On July 20, festival board president Shana Penn resigned from her post, citing “healthy differences on how to approach sensitive issues.”

Stay tuned for more hubbub.