The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has long prided itself on taking on big issues. That's not to say that it leaned toward dogmatic movies, but rather toward films in which the subject matter and the story were more memorable than the main characters. It's the other way around this year, with a host of unbending (and usually unbowed) protagonists taking us on their relentless journeys.
For most of its 33 years, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival gathered the lion's share of its program from Israel, the United States and, for obvious reasons, Germany. As contemporary anti-Semitism has become more worrisome and more relevant than 20th-century genocide, France has displaced its neighbor as a festival source. In another unexpected development, French filmmakers have claimed the arena of interdenominational romantic comedies from their fully assimilated American peers. Meanwhile, the depth, breadth, quality and consistency of Israeli cinema has risen appreciably, although American Jews are as uncomfortable as ever with Israeli directors' political outspokenness and societal criticism.
To my eyes, at least, this year's lineup focuses a bit more heavily than usual on the American Jewish experience. Perhaps foreign-language films don't have the appeal (commercial or sex) they once did -- a worrisome trend that extends beyond this festival and this city -- or maybe younger audiences (every film festival's Holy Grail) only want to see reflections of themselves. Whatever forces are at work, the SFJFF remains a community event with a tent large enough to include everyone.
First Cousin Once Removed
The Art of the Documentary: First Cousin Once Removed
(Monday, July 29, 6:25pm, Castro Theatre)
New York filmmaker Alan Berliner has as unique a voice as Errol Morris or Werner Herzog, and arguably as large an audience thanks to PBS and HBO. The recipient of this year's Freedom of Expression Award masterfully excavates and diligently crafts his family's sagas in a way that invites each viewer to ponder his or her roots, ambitions, failures and relationships. First Cousin Once Removed, a study of the prolific poet Edwin Honig in his last, Alzheimer's-affected years, challenges and confronts audiences more intensely than Berliner's Intimate Stranger and Nobody's Business, and offers more ephemeral—and yes, poetic—redemption.
Internal Affairs -- Israel: The Attack
(Tuesday, July 30, 6:15pm, Castro Theatre and Sunday, August 4, 6:40pm at the California in Berkeley)
This crackling thriller, which follows an Israeli Arab doctor from self-satisfaction to utter alienation, deserves its prestige slot as the fest's Centerpiece film. Lebanese-born, Paris-based director Ziad Doueiri brilliantly adapts Algerian novelist's Yasmina Khadra's novel about a successful, assimilated professional who is implicated by association in a suicide bombing. Embarking on a one-man mission to unravel the act that destroyed his world and his complacency, he comes to realize that he is no longer welcome among Arabs or Israelis. If you miss it at the SFJFF, The Attack opens August 9 around the Bay Area.
Internal Affairs -- Poland: Aftermath
(Tuesday, July 30, 8:55pm, Castro Theatre; Sunday, August 4, 8:35pm, CineArts in Palo Alto and Thursday, August 8, 6:30pm, California Theatre)
After working for 20 years in construction in Chicago, an anti-Semitic émigré makes a return visit to the Polish village where he grew up, and where his farmer brother is infuriating the townspeople by (literally) digging up the past. Every line of dialogue and every camera move has a purpose in writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski's mesmerizing exploration of the lingering legacy of the Nazi occupation on the generation born after the war. A chunk of artful, unflinching reality flavored with a drop of the supernatural, Aftermath offers all the pleasures of deeply intelligent filmmaking.
The Zigzag Kid
Family Entertainment: The Zigzag Kid
(Thursday, July 25, 6:30pm, Castro Theatre; Sunday, August 4, 1:50pm, CineArts in Palo Alto; Tuesday, August 6, California in Berkeley and Monday, August 12 at the Rafael in San Rafael)
The crowd-pleasing Opening Night film, an irreverent-yet-ultimately-poignant coming-of-age escapade from Belgian director Vincent Bal, screens at three other family-friendly times during the festival. Adapted from Israeli author David Grossman's novel and relocated from the Middle East to the Continent, The Zigzag Kid follows a boy on the cusp of his bar mitzvah whose not-so-chance meeting with a master thief turns into a search for the truth about the mother he never knew. The movie's energetic and messy setup, with its wink to '60s spy movies, is more fun than the resolution, in which every loose end is neatly bound up.
Hippie Homecoming: American Commune
(Friday, July 26, 8:55pm, Castro Theatre; Saturday, August 10, 2pm, Rafael in San Rafael and Sunday, August 11, 6:40pm at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland)
Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo's ill-conceived and poorly structured first-person documentary aspires to blend the sisters' mixed emotions about growing up on The Farm in the '70s and early '80s with a history of the large (and largely successful) Tennessee commune that sprouted in the Haight-Asbury during the Summer of Love. The archival footage is not only a treat but the sole saving grace of a film utterly lacking in insights or compelling characters. It would have behooved the filmmakers to recognize that their real subject wasn't having a childhood different from everyone else they'd meet in the course of their lives, but rather the trauma of their parents' divorce.
A Life of the Mind: Hannah Arendt
(Sunday, July 28, 2:05pm, Castro Theatre)
The festival screens German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta's latest earnest collaboration with actress Barbara Sukowa prior to its Bay Area theatrical opening on August 2. The film dramatizes (though the word isn't fully deserved) the icy intellectual's life-altering decision to cover Adolf Eichmann's 1961 war crimes trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, and the controversy ignited by her description of "the banality of evil." Arendt unwittingly burns all sorts of bridges, igniting veritable cartons of cigarettes that she happily smokes. I shouldn't be snarky, for von Trotta and Sukowa are to be admired for depicting a brutally uncompromising character capable of alienating whole swaths of the audience.
The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich
What the ??: The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich
(Tuesday, July 30, 4pm, Castro Theatre; Monday, August 5, 8:35pm, California; Thursday, August 8, 8:45pm, CineArts in Palo Alto and Sunday, August 11, 6pm, Rafael in San Rafael)
Antonin Svoboda, who made a documentary about Wilhelm Reich a couple years ago for Austrian TV, is not the first Eastern European filmmaker inspired by the radical psychoanalyst and scientist. Back in 1971, Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev made WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a wildly subversive sex/political collage-satire inspired by Reich's theories. Svoboda adopts a far more traditional and coherent approach in The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, focusing on the U.S. government's prosecution and persecution of Reich during the McCarthyism of the '50s. Klaus-Maria Brandauer's central performance epitomizes the movie: Both are seemingly accessible but ultimately impenetrable. The aptly titled film reclaims Reich as a visionary, uncompromising martyr, yet leaves us confused and dismayed by his inability to relate to anyone on any terms other than his.
Wherever You Go
On the Road: Wherever You Go and Aya
(Monday, July 29, 11:20am, Castro Theatre)
This pairing of 40-minute narratives by young Israeli filmmakers featuring women in cars is a mixed bag. The near-perfect Wherever You Go imagines a breathless, fraught road trip through Israel's unpopulated south by a desperate young Bedouin fleeing an arranged marriage to her cousin and the fragile looking yet unexpectedly tough Israeli gal en route to a sibling's wedding who gives her a lift. Writer-director Rony Sasson Angel's effortlessly riveting study of female independence and female support establishes her as a talent to watch. Aya, on the other hand, plays like a short story stretched to double its proper length. The waifish title character (Sara Adler), waiting for her beau at the airport, impulsively drives a visiting musicologist (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) to his Jerusalem hotel instead. Co-writers and co-directors Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnum create a succinct, intriguing beginning and an open, ambiguous ending, but the moody middle of their film -- two strangers tentatively forging a temporary bond on the way into town -- goes nowhere.
Joe Papp in Five Acts
Stage Struck:Joe Papp in Five Acts
(Saturday, July 27, 2:35pm, Castro Theatre; Saturday, August 3, 1:55pm, California and Wednesday, August 7, 6pm, CineArts in Palo Alto)
Karen Thorsen and Tracie Holder's vibrant portrait of the late Brooklyn-born impresario who founded the Public Theater and presented first-rate productions of Shakespeare in New York's parks for free -- what a concept: public art in public spaces for the multicultural masses -- is as inspiring as any film in the SFJFF lineup. Made for PBS' American Masters, which airs it in 2014, the documentary rejects the usual polite, disembodied celebrity narrator in favor of its subject's voice. A stream of Pappisms, culled from interviews and public appearances, palpably convey the spirit, ambition, philosophy and conscience of a man who, like Hannah Arendt and Wilhelm Reich, stuck to his course regardless what it cost him.
The Last Sentence
Date Night, Bergman Style: The Last Sentence
(Monday, July 29, 3:25pm, Castro Theatre and Tuesday, August 6, 8pm, CineArts in Palo Alto)
In the mid-1930s, all of Europe quivered and genuflected before Hitler's unambiguous and unpredictable might. From the beginning of Nazism, veteran Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt challenged German fascism as well as the inclinations of his countrymen toward neutrality (which he castigated as a combination of cowardice and apathy). A fascinating subject, pounded by much-loved writer-director Jan Troell (The Emigrants) into ponderous porridge through an unending parade of people talking in immaculately furnished rooms. The first hour, focusing on the unsmiling Segerstedt's cruel treatment of his spouse and his affair with his publisher's wife, evokes Ingmar Bergman's domestic dramas. If you're in the mood for that, great, but it's difficult to comprehend why Troell finds the journalist's private life more resonant than his public stands. From the SFJFF's standpoint, however, Segerstedt's fearless refusal to respond to outside pressure, or to second-guess himself, makes him a perfect fit for this year's program.
The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 25 through August 12, 2013 at various Bay Area locations. For tickets and information, visit sfjff.org.