June 26--The theme of the 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is "Life Through a Jew(ish) Lens." The lineup of films suggests that the lens creates some unexpected and delightful refractions.
Such as ... Muhammad Ali?
The festival opens July 25 at the Castro Theater with an offbeat (and big-budgeted) Dutch film, "The Zigzag Kid," and runs through Aug. 12 at various venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, San Rafael and Palo Alto. If that sounds ambitious -- three weeks and five cities -- it is.
"We have more venues and about a 30 percent increase in the number of programs," Program Director Jay Rosenblatt said, noting the festival will be at Oakland's classic Grand Lake theater (Aug. 9-11) for the first time.
Playing at the Grand Lake, as well as other venues, will be "The Trials of Muhammad Ali," a documentary directed by Bill Siegel ("The Weather Underground").
"One of my favorites of the festival," Rosenblatt said. "It's about the controversy of changing his name and becoming a Nation of Islam member, and also about him refusing to serve in the Army, and be willing to go to jail.
"There's nothing extensively Jewish about the film, except when you think about some of the things he was dealing with -- freedom from slavery, and a reverberation of Jewish values and Jewish history."
The film is one of several "icon" films -- a subcategory of films at the festival examining (mostly) Jewish people who have influenced popular culture. There are works about a female German Jewish philosopher ("Hannah Arendt," starring Barbara Sukowa and directed by Margarethe von Trotta), Johnny Cash's manager ("My Father and the Man in Black"), Neil Diamond ("Neil Diamond: Solitary Man"), Jerry Lewis ("Jerry and Me"), illustrator Art Spiegelman ("The Art of Spiegelman"), Amy Winehouse ("Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle") and Levi Strauss and Adolph Sutro ("American Jerusalem: Jews and the Building of San Francisco").
Two filmmaking icons will be at the festival. Experimental documentarian Alan Berliner will receive the festival's Freedom of Expression Award, and 82-year-old Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell, an international force in the 1970s ("The Emigrants," "The New Land") will bring his latest film (which he shot himself), "The Last Sentence."
One budding icon is Alex Karpovsky, the young star of Lena Dunham's HBO hit "Girls" and an already accomplished writer-director-star in his own right. Karpovsky will present his new film "Red Flag," and will talk about his work in an extended discussion with clips.
"We think he's on the cusp of being a big star," Rosenblatt said. "Plus, I think he'll appeal to a younger crowd, and we really want to grow that audience, it's been a goal of ours for some time."
The San Francisco closing night film, Aug. 1 at the Castro, is the French family comedy-drama "Rue Mandar."
The opener, "The Zigzag Kid," an adventure/detective/coming-of-age story that includes Isabella Rossellini in the cast, has special meaning for Rosenblatt. He first met the film's director, Vincent Bal, two decades ago when both had short films in a festival in Portugal.
"For me, it's really exciting to see what he's done in 20 years, working with big budgets, big casts," Rosenblatt said. "This film is really impressive, and really fun. We wanted to kick off the festival with an exuberant film like this."
33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: Runs July 25-Aug. 12 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, San Rafael and Palo Alto. Schedules and ticket information: (415) 621-0523. www.sfjff.org.
G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen
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