It's a dodgy prospect to pinpoint a dominant theme in anything as unwieldy and far-reaching as a film festival program, but blowhards, er, pundits in other areas (politics and sports, notably) don't refrain from trend-spotting and pseudo-insights, so why should film critics? Glad you agree. So you can totally take my word that relationships, particularly familial dealings, drive the fascinating lineup assembled for the 32nd annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, beginning Thursday, July 19, 2012 at the Castro in San Francisco and wrapping Monday, August 6 at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The dozen films I previewed explore with equal measures of courage and curiosity the complicated business of reconciling one's own needs with those of spouses, siblings and parents.
The upbeat festival opener, Hava Nagila (The Movie) delves into the history and significance of the go-to tune for family-oriented celebrations such as bar mitzvah parties and Jewish weddings, and non-denominational occasions like late-inning rallies. A fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek mix of sharp insights from cultural commentators and affectionate swipes at suburban American Jewish mores, Roberta Grossman's documentary includes plenty of fascinating bits of forgotten history and the occasional evocation of serious themes. When Harry Belafonte discusses his connection and affection for the Hebrew-language number that became his signature song (along with "Day-O") at the beginning of the 1960s, we're returned to the heydays of black-Jewish relations, pro-Israel sentiment and the folk music scene.
The subject of local filmmaker Samuel Ball's piquant and pithy portrait, Joanne Sfar Draws From Memory is an endearing, unassuming cartoonist whose work renders handed-down stories from his parents about the religiously tolerant Algeria of their youth and the daily adventures of his own young, France-based family with charm and a considerable emotional punch. Shot before Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat zoomed to the top of French bestseller lists and turned its author into a celebrity, the doc (prefaced by a introductory short, People of the Graphic Novel) has a disarming French sensibility which is perfectly in sync with Ball's preference for humanizing (rather than glorifying) the artist. Following its July 21 and 29 festival playdates, Joanne Sfar Draws From Memory airs five times in the next week on KQED. See KQED's TV schedules for airdates and times.
The discomfiting French drama Broken forces that country's two primary minorities, Arabs and Jews, into a collision with neither villains nor solutions. Fifteen-year-old Lakdar is a solid student with an attentive, hard-working father, but he becomes embittered after a hand injury robs him of his talent for drawing cartoons. His well-meaning teacher, a young Jewish woman from an intellectual family at her first school, also becomes disillusioned when confronted with racism and rebellion on a daily basis. France has supplanted Germany as Europe's leading producer of Jewish-themed films in the last few years, and Broken is a fine example of filmmakers confronting hot-button social issues with intelligence and nuance.
Roman Polanski was born in Paris in 1933, and his family moved to Poland for some reason on the eve of World War II. His mother died in the camps, 25 years later his pregnant wife was murdered in Los Angeles by Charles Manson's crazed cultists and in 1977 he fled the U.S. after a judge reneged on an agreement regarding Polanski's statutory rape charge. You know the low points of this man's incredible life, and hopefully the high points of Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist. In the fascinating extended conversation, while he was under house arrest two years ago in Switzerland, with longtime friend Andrew Braunsberg that comprises Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, the artist doesn't explain or defend himself so much as be himself. Brilliant, articulate, candid, reflective and, above all, tough as hell, Polanski is great company.
It's inevitable that the Holocaust would make its presence known at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival, though there's no need to wince, or skip to the next paragraph. Contemporary filmmakers are refreshingly aggressive and direct in how they treat what used to be delicate material, none more so than Israeli doc maker David Fisher. His powerhouse Six Million and One isn't the first film in which he's forced his siblings to confront their parents' experiences during the Nazi era, but it's the most brutally candid and unexpectedly funny. Under the pretense of a European vacation, he takes two brothers and a sister on a tour of the once-heinous, now gentrified places in Austria their late father described in an unpublished memoir that the family found upon his death (and only David has read). A highlight of the festival, Six Million and One is as much about the ties that bind, and the experience of being a child of survivors, as it is about the Nazi genocide.
Another fascinating documentary, Life In Stills, provides more evidence that Israelis are brusque, impatient, and unafraid of confrontation. The central relationship here is between 96-year-old Miriam and her gay grandson, who operate a historic photo studio in Tel Aviv. Miriam's late husband documented life in pre-Israel Palestine, and photographed the ceremonies surrounding the founding of the state (as well as every new Prime Minister). A character sketch of a contemporary odd couple rather than a romanticized history trip down memory lane, the one-hour Life In Stills is often very funny and astonishingly unpredictable.
You have to go pretty far into the past to find a certified, unambiguous Israeli hero, which is exactly what Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story does. Netanyahu was the commanding officer -- and the only casualty -- of the successful 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe that rescued hostages from a hijacked Air France flight. A tribute that mostly avoids being a hagiography, the doc introduces us to a skilled, dedicated soldier with an appreciation for poetry. One wishes the filmmakers had asked current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's interviewed in the film, how his older brother's death influenced his politics and personality.
Speaking of Israel's attitude toward and treatment of the Palestinians, the festival reprises Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's dense, unflinching documentary The Law In These Parts (which I reviewed when it played the at the S.F. International Film Festival in the spring). Also back for another look after its SFIFF screening -- now I'm moving over to the fiction side of the SFJFF program, finally -- is The Exchange, Eran Kolirin's deadpan, existential study of a benumbed couple going through the motions of their life. He's a T.A. working toward his doctorate in physics; she's an unemployed architect. They only show emotion, or animation, when they're having sex, which at least means they're capable of some aliveness, and pleasure. Kolirin has rejected any attempts to read a political meaning into the film, but I elect to see Israeli characters in willful, benumbed denial as stand-ins for a populace refusing to deal head-on with the settlers or the Occupation.
Sex plays a peripheral role in another Israeli drama, Michal Aviad's raw, wrenching Invisible. Ronit Elkabetz, who always acts with her nerve endings exposed, plays a brittle wife and mother compelled to confront the lingering damage of being raped some 30 years ago. Her catalyst for this process is a single mom (played by the softer, seemingly inviting Evgenia Dodina) who was victimized by the same serial rapist around the same time. Designed to provoke discussion, in part because the film goes out of its way to reference the army's treatment of the Palestinians, Invisible compels one's attention and emotions. The filmmaker, incidentally, studied and lived in San Francisco in the '80s.
Russian speakers of a certain age will get the most out of Dmitry Povolotsky's gently comic coming-of-age yarn My Dad Is Baryshnikov, which unfolds in 1986. The likable misfit hero, an aspiring ballet dancer and low-level black-market accomplice, is generally bullied and mocked because he's Jewish. Until, that is, someone gifts him a VHS copy of White Knights, he decides that his long-absent dad is actually the great Baryshnikov, and his dancing improves. The lad's career prospects brighten, his ever-hustling mom seems more attentive, his social life is improving, and then -- well, reality bites. My Dad Is Baryshnikov is not a very well directed film, and it squanders opportunities for both laughs and pathos, but expats in the audience will trade smiles and nudges of recognition. As for the fractured family at the center of the movie, they foresee better days ahead. And that's what every family wishes for.
The 32nd annual San Francisco Jewish Festival runs July 19-26, 2012 at the Castro Theatre, July 28-29 at the JCC in San Francisco, July 28-Aug. 4 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, July 28-Aug. 2 at the CineArts at Palo Alto Square, Aug. 3 at the Oakland Art Murmur, August 6 at the Piedmont and Aug. 4-6 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For more information visit sfjff.org.