The warm embrace of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival was still lingering when the time arrived to pack for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF). Keep the Change enjoyed the honor of opening the SFJFF on July 20th at the grand and beautiful Castro Theatre which seats 1400 (almost as intimidating as the audience of 1200 in the Czech Republic). Although there was only one screening of KTC, the lead actors were invited to stay in San Francisco for three days, with hotel and airfare included. How could Samantha and I resist a free offer to be honored and enjoy one of my favorite cities? As an added bonus, my daughter and I had the opportunity to share the film and spend a day with my favorite cousin, Josh Karter, who lives in Santa Cruz and whom I rarely see.

Since the SFJFF focuses on films with Jewish themes, actors and directors, we received a very warm (and well-organized) welcome.  Festival organizers had booked hotels and airline reservations, and arranged cars and drivers for each event. I even received a full schedule and itinerary a week in advance. Since I was traveling on my own with Samantha, who is on the autism spectrum, I was extremely relieved to arrive in San Francisco without having to worry about transportation and hotel reservations. (Readers may recall that in Karlovy Vary, our hotel did NOT initially have our reservation when we arrived.)

In San Francisco, everyone from KTC stayed together at the Orchard Hotel. After spending the day with Josh, (visiting Haight Ashbury, eating a Brazilian lunch, enjoying the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and the city’s most crooked road), we were whisked away to our 6:30 pm premiere. Upon arrival at the theater, we were warmly greeted by the top SFJFF officials.  One of them embraced Samantha so enthusiastically and praised her so highly that my daughter and the official seemed like long lost friends, instead of two strangers meeting for the first time.

As we emerged from our car, photographers began snapping pictures of Samantha outside the theater. Although the other actors were also photographed—mostly with Samantha—I couldn’t help but notice the paparazzi continue to be magnetically drawn to my daughter.  Unfortunately, the other actors noticed too, and I had to deal with some envy issues.  (A good problem, right?)  Note to unknown male actors, a young, pretty actress is likely to receive more attention from photographers. This is one of those rare situations where females have more power. That said, I hope Samantha enjoys the power that comes from her photogenic smile for a long, long time.

At the Castro Theater, the entire orchestra was filled (about 1200 people!) The upstairs had been cordoned off so the KTC gang could relax in the lounge (and have another photo session!) before the screening. Once again, I felt like I had stumbled into an exhilarating alternate reality.  My Samantha, the impossible 7 year-old, whom we had once been advised to send away to a residential setting, was becoming a movie star? How could something so wonderful happen to me, (a person who hasn’t gone to temple or prayed for years)?  Not only was there a thunderous, standing ovation for KTC AGAIN, but so many people swarmed Samantha—congratulating her, asking for autographs and selfies—that I completely lost sight of her in a sea of admirers.

My daughter was somewhat annoyed with me for not following her down to the stage after the Q and A to observe her with adoring fans.  But it was impossible because I was too busy with MY OWN group of admirers.  Samantha had thanked me for “all my love and support over the years,” and so everyone wanted to meet me—the movie starlet’s mom!  What an amazing moment that was!

After the Q and A (which lasted until 9:30 or so), we attended the festival’s opening party at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  Samantha and I talked to so many people that it took us until after 10 pm to reach the room with food and drinks. Festival board members, sponsors,  other party guests and audience members were enthusiastically discussing the film and the Q and A. Everyone said that KTC was the best opening film they had ever seen AND the liveliest Q and A ever.  (Leave it to three quirky, articulate-but-unfiltered actors on the spectrum to keep the audience on their toes). See the link below:

Rachel Israel, Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Will … – YouTube

The day after our film’s premiere, the KTC gang was hosted for a lovely (and lively!) soup to nuts lunch at the Catch restaurant.  Several hours later we attended a 6:00 pm Shabbat dinner at a furniture store. Yes, lots of plush gray sofas, chairs, lamps etc. greeted us in an elegant, modern showroom.  With very little time between meals, and lots of great food—to be expected at all Jewish celebrations—there was no chance of leaving San Francisco hungry.  However, Samantha (a sodaholic since childhood) was extremely disappointed and alarmed by the absence of any soda (diet or otherwise). Fortunately, I persuaded her to be a good sport by promising her any soda she wanted as an after-dinner drink on the way back to our hotel.

Everyone at the Shabbat dinner was encouraged to sit and talk to someone new, so Samantha took this suggestion literally. Instead of sitting next to her, Samantha instructed me to leave a chair open between us so that she could make a new friend. (Contrary to autism stereotypes, my daughter is neither aloof, nor a wallflower). The open seat was quickly filled, and she engaged in conversation throughout the night, soaking up all the compliments on her performance. I, too, was busily engaged all evening as “Samantha’s mom.” (!)

I’ve always been a proud wife and mother, but never did I expect dinner party guests to refer to me repeatedly as “Samantha’s mom” with such appreciation in their voices. As for the diva herself, although warm and outgoing, she often sits at large group dinners feeling uncertain when or how to join a conversation. But at the SFJFF Shabbat dinner, everyone welcomed her into conversations and wanted to be her friend. She had finally become the leading lady, and I was thrilled to play the supporting role.  Today, it’s hard to believe that once upon a time, being known as “Samantha’s mom” was (as my daughter likes to say) a bummer. Not anymore! Nowadays, I can’t stop smiling.


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