Now Playing! S.F. Jewish Film Festival Drills Down to the Roots

Still from 'The Waldheim Waltz.' (Courtesy Menemsha Films/JFI)

Wajib, Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir’s insightfully low-key portrait of life under occupation, accompanies a respected teacher (the ever-reliable Mohammad Bakri) and his expatriate son visiting from Europe as they deliver wedding invitations all over Nazareth on behalf of their daughter and sister. Their task is both custom and duty (the literal translation of wajib), but above all it’s a means of revealing Abu Shadi and his son’s differing views of their hometown. The older man revels in the familiar routines and relationships, while his son sees the lives of Palestinians in Nazareth as inert, compromised and stultifying.

Home is a complicated subject, and the annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 19–Aug. 5 at numerous venues around the Bay Area) examines its myriad associations with ancestors, tradition, foundation and security.

Actors Mohammad Bakri and Saleh Bakri in a still from 'Wajib.'
Actors Mohammad Bakri and Saleh Bakri in a still from 'Wajib.' (Courtesy JFI)

In the irresistibly melodramatic travelogue Promise at Dawn, determined single mother Nina Kacew (a wildly expressive Charlotte Gainsbourg) treks from Vilna to Warsaw to Nice in search of a better launching pad for her prodigal son. (The driven lad grows up to be author Romain Gary.) France is also the setting, in the beautifully photographed Memoir of War, for another writer’s painful coming of age: Marguerite Duras (Melanie Thierry) encounters the limits of conscience and depths of betrayal during the Nazi occupation.

The imprint of birthplace, and events that happened there decades ago, are integral to sagas about the dwindling population of Holocaust survivors. The octogenarian protagonist (Miguel Angel Solá) of The Last Suit sets out on a quest from his Buenos Aires home across a deeply foreign European continent, where he is compelled to rely on the poignant kindness of strangers. The elderly title character (played by Czech New Wave director Jiří Menzel) of The Interpreter also embarks on a journey, from Austria through Slovakia, but his mission isn’t catharsis but catalyst: His companion (Peter Simonschek of Toni Erdmann) is the comfortably in-denial offspring of a war criminal.

Mélanie Thierry as Marguerite Duras in 'Memoir of War.'
Mélanie Thierry as Marguerite Duras in 'Memoir of War.' (Courtesy Music Box Films/JFI)

Speaking of fascism, have you noticed that it’s trending again? Ruth Beckermann’s essential documentary, The Waldheim Waltz, about a Nazi collaborator who subsequently held the title of U.N. Secretary General and was elected President of Austria, isn’t a history lesson so much as a blaring alarm. Murer: Anatomy of a Trial, Christian Frosch’s expertly crafted reenactment of the 1963 trial of Austrian SS officer and gentleman farmer Franz Murer, is even more infuriating. Both villains, it could be said, benefited from a home-field advantage.

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