Immigration, assimilation, food, the Holocaust, identity, music, Israel and the Palestinians, secularism vs. ultra-religiosity, comedy, social justice, intermarriage and unfettered, full-throated kvetching -- that's the Jewish experience in the 20th Century in a nutshell. Seven years into the new century, I don't sense any dramatic changes in the recipe. Nor does the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which has assembled a hefty, broad and far-reaching program that embraces all the above themes, along with a heaping helping of sex.
As in past years, the lineup of Israeli documentaries is extensive, satisfying the sizable number of Bay Area residents attuned to the ongoing conflict. The narrative films, from France, Mexico, Israel, Germany and the U.S., without exception explore what it means to be a Jew in an era of malleable borders, easy portability, chronic disposability and instant communication. This year's wild card is a sidebar of boxing films, but resist the temptation to crack jokes about Jews turning the other cheek. It's a New Testament reference.
As has become the accepted (by whom, you may rightly ask) custom at this blog, I'll avoid the hard work of grouping the films through some clever, well-articulated process and simply list a whole bunch of highlights.
Hot House interviews a range of Palestinians in Israeli prisons in a low-key style that chips away at our preconceptions, humanizes its subjects (though not the female suicide bomber) and somehow leaves us both more hopeful and more pessimistic than we were when we walked in. Seeing it at the Castro (or at any of the other three venues) promises to be a quintessential Bay Area movie experience. I haven't seen 9 Star Hotel, another Israeli doc which examines the plight of a band of Palestinian construction workers in Israel, but it comes highly recommended.
Gorgeous! is a frothy, frenetic Parisian farce with a serious case of sex on the brain. The action (pun intended) revolves around a beauty shop, its divorced owner and her Sephardic Jewish cousins and friends. Moviegoers seeking a bit more substance and even more drama are directed to Three Mothers, an Israeli saga of Egyptian-born sisters that spans five decades and two countries with style, songs and tears to spare.
Dmitriy Salita is a Russian-born, Brooklyn-based welterweight at the dawn of his pro career whose defining characteristic -- in the context of a boxing doc -- is that he's a deeply observant Jew. In Orthodox Stance, filmmaker Jason Hutt carefully straddles the line between accessible sports movie and unusual character study. For my money he opts for the former a bit too much, but he knows (like Muhammud Ali) that it never hurts to give the people what they want.
Local filmmaker Judith Schaefer's So Long Are You Young premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival last October, and is entirely deserving of the additional SFJFF screenings. Samuel Ullman was a Jewish Civil War vet and businessman who played a major role in pushing through the first public all-black high school in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1900. Strangely enough, a poem he wrote in his 70s was somehow embraced by the Japanese after World War II as a symbol of hope. Once the doc kicks into gear after the first couple of minutes, it's a fascinating and moving portrait of an important though largely forgotten life.
The French trifle Bad Faith is the closest thing in the festival to the well-meaning, empty-headed fables starring beautiful people that have long been a staple of American movies. Cécile de France plays a Jewish physical therapist and director and co-writer Roschdy Zem portrays a Muslim musician and piano teacher; their lovely four-year romance turns to jelly when she gets pregnant and they have to break the secret -- of their relationship, not the impending baby -- to their parents.
Bad Faith fits snugly in this category, too, but let's tout the Israeli feature The Bubble (which I also singled out when it played the Frameline fest in June.) It's got gay sex, straight sex and a solid political backbone-- all the ingredients demanded by the evolved, enlightened Bay Area moviegoer. (The film opens theatrically in September, in case the lone fest screening in Berkeley is too much of a shlep.)
Between Two Notes is a fine title for this mesmerizing travelogue through the Middle East on the trail of great Arabic musicians. Blues For Allah would have been an even better name, if the Grateful Dead hadn't gotten there first.
Another music doc, Knowledge is the Beginning: Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, follows the development of the young people's symphony founded by the brilliant Jewish pianist and conductor Barenboim and the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. The musicians, drawn from the Arab world and Israel, are a bunch of self-centered prima donnas without a lot of socio-political awareness -- they're typical teenagers, in other words -- but the real appeal isn't their comments, but Barenboim's.
Poetry in Motion:
Although he had a wife and a baby, Shlomo Shir's illness was a solitary, surreal experience. So he kept the camcorder running through his lengthy and excruciating cancer treatment, partly to keep his head together and partly to have some control over what was going on. Given the circumstances, the lack of self-indulgence in Mr. Cortisone, Happy Days is nothing short of amazing. Instead, there's a great deal of dry humor, a good deal of love and a few profound, fleeting sequences that convey how great it is to be alive.
Adventures in Satire:
Swiss-born, German-based director Dani Levy scored a hit at home with his previous comedy about German Jews, Go For Zucker! He ups the ante with My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, which imagines the evil dictator at such a low point in 1944 that he must summon his one-time acting teacher, a Jew, from a concentration camp. Levy is this year's recipient of the festival's Freedom of Expression Award, and he's an offbeat but completely deserving choice. In the coming years, he'll be one of the filmmakers who will help us understand the evolving nature of the Jewish experience.
The 2007 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 19-26 at the Castro Theater, July 28-August 4 at the Roda Theater in Berkeley, July 28-August 2 at the Aquarius in Palo Alto and August 4-6 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For program and ticket information, visit www.sfjff.org.