Interview: San Diego Jewish Film Festival Promises Something for Everyone

By: Jan. 20, 2015

Craig Prater brings an abundance of experience to his role as Executive Director of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival ( This year's events promise to be more exciting than ever, with highlights including a short film starring Seinfeld icon Jerry Stiller, a documentary featuring legendary singer and actor Theodore Bikel, renowned for playing the role of Tevya in Fiddler On The Roof, and a special event with famed Bollywood film producer Randhir Kapoor.

EM: What is your background? How long have you been with SDJFF, and what has been your journey since your first started as Executive Director?

CP: I began my international film festival career with entertainer Sonny Bono when he founded the Palm Springs International Film Festival. I was with that festival for eight years as Executive Director. Immediately after, I moved to Bangkok for four years as Executive Director of the Bangkok International Film Festival, then worked with the Women's International Film Festival in Los Angeles, The Museum of Tolerance Film Festival and the Latino Film Festival for the National Hispanic Educational Foundation. I am now in my second year with the San Diego Jewish Film Festival. I wanted to join SDJFF because with so many international film festivals, the genre-specific film festivals are slowly growing with increased interest on the part of film society groups, film travel groups and the general public. When I learned SDJFF was closing in on their Silver Anniversary, I wanted to be part of it. Any film festival that survives twenty-five years is doing something right. We have grown substantially this year with an increased number of films, both features and shorts, and more theater screens.

EM: What most excites you about this year's Festival?

CP: A number of things. More films with more choices for everyone. Some people like documentaries so we have our largest collection ever. More features and dramas and the opening night French comedy will set the pace for the entire festival. Our largest collection of Israeli films. We also have an impressive collection of short films in The Joyce Forum. Both shorts and features have an impressive group of jury members, which is perfect. One of our highlights is going to be with the private screening for our Underwriters only. Not only are they going to experience a great documentary about Theodore Bikel, but he will be here in person and I can confidentially say that he is going to surprise the audience and sing a couple of songs.

EM: Is there a special atmosphere vis-à-vis your 25th anniversary?

CP: I discovered something quite by accident in observing SDJFF through the years. Having been in the film festival business for many years, I know the films over the past twenty-plus years that have received acclaim and attention. In the early years of SDJFF, I noticed four films were voted as audience favorites. In all four cases, I was a part of the USA premieres. Little did our audiences at the SDJFF know their audience favorite awards went on to win major Golden Globes and Academy Oscars, or great film nominations and recognitions. We are bringing those films back as retrospective screenings to remind our audience of the excellent taste and insights they had over the past twenty-five years. Because of that anniversary, more film groups want to attend because they knew we would have an incredible film line-up. Thanks to a great staff and film committees, we do!

EM: You must be thrilled to have Bollywood icon Randhir Kapoor as part of the Festival. Please describe the unique events surrounding him.

CP: The incredible Kapoor family is not only talented, but they are industry greats. I have worked for years with international programmer Hannah Fisher, an expert in the film industry in India, who has helped tremendously on this program. We are more than thrilled about Mr. Kapoor being involved, and very honored. And the excitement of the dance troupe from the local Rhythm Dance Company is going to be very impressive with their costumes and music. I know most of our audience is going to be surprised that since the beginning of films being made in India to the current Bollywood popularity, the actresses in India were Jewish. Other females were not allowed to act because of their religion. Jewish actresses received all the roles. It's a great piece of film history.

EM: Fascinating. What is your process for choosing your films? What is the time frame from first look to final decision?

CP: We are already working on 2016. Our Film Programming Manager, Paul Parietti, follows new films being secured by distributors the entire year. We also have films submitted to us and I attend the International Film Market each year in Toronto. We give those films to our film focus groups that rate the films. They then go to our four film committees and ultimately end up with ratings (1-5) to our Executive Film Committee who makes the final decisions.

EM: Do you seek controversial films, such as last year's Wagner's Jews?

CP: We seek quality films that might or might not be controversial depending upon the viewer. Film festivals strive to show the art of filmmaking. If in the selection some films are controversial, that is the position of the viewer. In the case of WAGNER'S JEWS, which we had in our festival last year, yes, we had a few comments, but it was an incredible piece of work. It presented a piece of history that some people may not have known so it was not only a quality film, but also educational. I like to think filmmaking is all about talent, art and education. Some may like the film. Others hate it. The same as any piece of art.

EM: Is it rare to include films from such well-known icons as Jerry Stiller and Theodore Bikel?

CP: No. Jerry Stiller's short film this year, SIMPLER TIMES, is so great. It's sensitive, realistic in today's world, yet funny. Theodore Bikel's documentary and his personal appearance will be one of this year's highlights. But no, it is not rare.

EM: What other aspects of the Festival would you like to share?

CP: I'm one of those film junkies who is equally fond of the work coming from the theater world. In fact, let's get real. The actors who are performing live don't get a second change for a "retake". Can we talk talent? I love and have great respect of artistic talent in the performing arts wherever it comes from. And there is nothing more interesting than to get people discussing which was better, "the film" or "the stage play." It varies, doesn't it?

Photo credit: Craig Prater

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