The old advertising tagline and pop culture catchphrase “You don’t have to be Jewish to like...” has special relevance for the 35th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
A surprising number of the films have no discernible Jewish content (East Bay filmmaker Rick Goldsmith’s Mind/Game: The Unquiet Life of Chamique Holdsclaw, Abigail Disney’s The Armor of Light) or a single fleeting reference to the central character’s ancestry (Kevin Kerslake’s As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM, French writer-director Karin Albou’s My Shortest Love Affair). It’s another piece of evidence that the traditional identity of identity-oriented film festivals in the Bay Area is shifting before our eyes.
This is plainly strategic on the part of the SFJFF, which runs July 23 through Aug. 2 at the Castro with additional dates in Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland and San Rafael. The aim, presumably, is to reach a broader (and younger) audience and provoke conversations beyond the Jewish community’s usual left-right standoffs. (You never know, you might even overhear a fresh perspective on the newly struck deal with Iran in the lobby.)
The big picture is a less pressing concern to you, I expect, than the perennial questions: What’s good? What should I see? I’m glad you asked.
Aug. 1, 2:50pm and Aug. 2, 1:30 pm at the Castro Theatre
History continually presents us with inconvenient and uncomfortable truths that are best acknowledged, even belatedly. Israeli director Mor Loushy unearths shockingly candid audio interviews conducted by writer Amos Oz with young kibbutzniks immediately after their safe return from the Six Day War. Half a century on, they demolish the cherished myth of the heroic underdog with no goals beyond fighting for survival and describe the first stage of the Palestinian occupation.
Aug. 1, 9:10pm at the Castro Theatre; Aug. 8, 4:25pm at the Lakeside Theater
Frauke Finsterwalder’s wonderfully absurdist and ultimately disturbing fable peers into the German soul and finds a bottomless pool of affluent self-hatred. Inhabiting an accessible middle ground between the deadpan alienation of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson and the deadpan cruelty of Austrian Ulrich Seidl (who’s name-checked, along with Antonioni, by a hilariously calculating documentary filmmaker), Finsterworld interweaves a pedicurist bonding with an elderly client, a cop with a secret taste for Furries and a high school bus trip to a concentration camp that goes stunningly wrong.
July 24, 12:00pm at the Castro Theatre; July 27, 2:40pm at CineArts; Aug. 9, 12:30pm at the Lakeside Theater
The Czech Republic and Slovakia send this gorgeous, audacious depiction of the Nazi war on Jews and culture in the East. Tracing the journeys of a handful of popular real-life composers, dancers and musicians, director Zdeněk Jiráský recreates the champagne-and-diamonds 1930s before thrusting us into the harsh blacks and grays of the concentration camps. Jiráský takes a huge risk by evoking the unimaginable horror of reality, but he succeeds in making us feel a different quality of pain and despair than, say, Roman Polanski’s great portrait of the destruction of civilization, The Pianist.
July 31, 6:30pm at the Castro Theatre
The son of a traveling 19th-century immigrant peddler, Julius Rosenwald was the managerial maven who turned Sears Roebuck into a behemoth. This captain of Chicago industry was also an extraordinary philanthropist whose signal accomplishments, according to Aviva Kempner’s prosaic yet highly informative documentary, were partnering with Booker T. Washington to build more than 5,000 African-American schools in the South and providing grants to up-and-coming black artists. Slated for a Bay Area theatrical release in September, Rosenwald rediscovers a black-Jewish connection with many happy consequences that preceded the Civil Rights Movement.
July 25, 6:50pm at the Castro Theatre; July 27, 6:30pm at CineArts; Aug. 2, 6:30pm at the California; Aug. 9, 4:20pm at the Smith Rafael Film Center
Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israeli cousins who relocated to Los Angeles, ruled the 1980s with a nonstop flurry of action-oriented exploitation movies. They loved the primal pleasures of making and watching movies, but coveted the respect of their peers embodied in the Oscar statuette. The prolific Hilla Medalia (Web Junkie, Dancing in Jaffa) has crafted an entertaining, poignant portrait that’s superior to Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, which screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April.
July 30, 8:35pm at CineArts; Aug. 2, 5:35pm at the Castro Theatre; Aug. 7, 6:20pm at the Smith Rafael Film Center
One of my favorite movie genres is post-Holocaust fiction, as distance allows filmmakers and audiences to engage with irreverent and morally complicated perspectives. Uruguayan writer-director Álvaro Brechner’s sun-drenched yarn has a great premise, but is a little too soft-centered. Its elderly Jewish protagonist has lived a successful, decent life since fleeing Poland in the '30s at his parents’ behest, but has never done anything to “justify” his lucky fate. When Mr. Kaplan gets it in his head that the old guy with the fish joint at the beach is an unprosecuted war criminal, he devises an Eichmann-style kidnapping. Poignant and touching in spots, the movie would have benefited from the pacing of a farce.
July 29, 6:30pm at the Castro Theatre; July 30, 6:15pm at CineArts; Aug. 3, 6:15pm at the California; Aug. 8, 8:30pm at the Smith Rafael Film Center
The thirty/forty-something romantic comedy-drama is another burgeoning subgenre, with decidedly mixed results. The contrived and unrealistic premise of French writer-director Karin Albou’s talky, claustrophobic saga is that Louisa (played by Albou) is pregnant by long-ago boyfriend and recent one-night stand Charles (Patrick Mimoun), a New York-based novelist who returns to Paris to live with her. Their endlessly frustrated (and occasionally amusing, if you’re in the proper mood) conversations map the extent of their incompatibility, although neither quite wants to cut the cord. Even at 78 minutes, My Shortest Love Affair lasts too long.
July 31, 2:30pm at the Castro Theatre
The SFJFF salutes Judith Helfand, one of the most gutsy and vulnerable practitioners of the first-person documentary, with a screening of her 2001 environmental exposé. The New York filmmaker also participates in an onstage interview augmented with clips from her current works in progress. It’s impossible to separate the personal from the political in Helfand’s best films, which is the highest compliment I can pay to the activist spirit that animates her character and drives her career. You don’t have to be Jewish to call out injustice, but if you are, and you do, the SFJFF will find a slot for your film.