New Generation of Filmmakers to Debut at Film Fest

By Jonathan Farrell

Movies have always provided a glimpse into life. They allow the public to open a window upon the world and at times to see intimate details or insights often over-looked.

There is much that can be overlooked in San Francisco, so a film that takes place in the Sunset District can shed light on this little piece of real estate.

"Gary's Story," a documentary about Sunset resident Gary Podvalny and his family, will premier July 22 at the 27th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF).

As a part of the largest Jewish film festival in the nation, "Gary's Story" will be part of the international collection of films highlighting the essence of Jewish culture, history, issues and ideas. Sixteen-year-old Podvalny provides a glimpse into his life and the life of his parents and grandparents. His narrative amid familiar neighborhood scenes, such as Golden Gate Park, tells of several generations all working together to pursue the dream of a better and happier life.

"There are no pit stops when you are chasing the American Dream," his father would say.

The empowering influence of his grandmother Faina Feygina has made a dynamic impression upon him, so the film is dedicated to her. While Podvalny defines himself as an American who likes baseball and football, he is very aware of the Russian and Jewish roots that are an integral part of his life.

Persistent in his quest to be competitive and to not lose focus, Podvalny said he has it engraved in his mind: "You must be the best or you don't survive."

Survival is utmost, especially when Podvalny's parents and grandparents struggled and worked so hard to make it to America. Podvalny tells of the hardships his family had to endure just to get out of Russia to enjoy the freedoms so many in the United States take for granted.

In 1990, when Podvalny was two months old, his family arrived in the United States with only $300.

"Gary's Story" is a part of nine short documentaries entitled "As Old As Our Eyes," which reflect the diverse perspectives of a new generation of American Jewish people. As part of the New Jewish Filmmaking Project, the "As Old As Our Eyes" documentary collection is an unparalleled endeavor that took six years to make. It is produced and directed by Sam Ball and Sophie Constantinou.

The rare collection of life stories, written and co-directed by teenagers, such as Podvalny, are part of the Perestroika-wave of immigrants that arrived in San Francisco during the 1990s. Eighty thousand Russian-speaking Jewish people live in California.

In San Francisco, as in other cities across the nation, these immigrants from the former Soviet Union have made a significant impact upon the cultural, social and economic fabric of the city. The younger generation among that wave that arrived in the 1990s is now coming of age, like Podvalny, 17-year-old Klaira Markenzon and Yelena Shuster, who immigrated to San Francisco as young children.

All these young people have "a foot in the old world, with Russian traditions, and a foot in American way of life," Ball said.

Ball and Constantinou, who founded Citizen Film more than five years ago, have been acclaimed for their work as documentary filmmakers.

Ball graduated from Stanford University, founded the New Jewish Filmmaking Project, and continues to receive awards and recognition along with Constantinou and others for their groundbreaking work.

"We are fortunate to have a funding community here in the Bay Area that understands the importance of culture," Ball said. "There's a willingness to take the community as it is."

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was founded by Deborah Kaufman, who wanted to use cinema as a way to spark a new and open discussion of politics and culture inside the Jewish community and to challenge Hollywood's stereotypical portrayal of Jewish life. Since 1980, with the help of dedicated staff members like Janis Plotkin and others, the SFJFF has been celebrating passionate storytelling, powerful imagery and the courageous spirits of countless people.

For more information about "Gary's Story" and "As Old As Our Eyes," visit the Web site at or call (415) 206-1880. The 27th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival starts July 19. For more information regarding tickets and show times, visit the Web site at or call (925) 275-9490.