It's easy to play the provocateur. But the willingness to court controversy -- to be a rebel with a cause -- requires courage. That's a quality the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has always had in abundance.
Identity film festivals actively seek out images beyond mainstream movie and television strictures, yet typically gravitate toward positive portrayals. The SFJFF takes a more aggressive and risky approach, inspired in part by the Bay Area's rep as a fount of political discourse and activism. The other key determinant is that American Jews have been fully integrated into the economic, political, cultural and social systems since the 1950s. Unlike, say, African-Americans and gays and lesbians, Jews no longer consider themselves outsiders victimized every day by discrimination, and have little need for affirmation. Self-examination, however, is a different kettle of gefilte fish.
Which brings us to Yoav Shamir's discomfiting conversation-starter, Defamation. The young-but-prominent Israeli documentary maker ostensibly set out to learn about anti-Semitism from career opponents such as Abe Foxman, the national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. Shamir's agenda, in fact, is to question whether it is a good thing for Jews (in Israel as well as the U.S.) to be raised and/or trained to see the world as a bastion of enemies.
Shamir undercuts any earnestness with droll narration and casual, longer-than-normal, on-the-move interviews, but he's dead serious under that veneer. He keeps his eye and ear tuned for the throwaway comment that is most revealing, then draws in closer. Defamation will receive a theatrical release in the fall, but it should really be seen at the SFJFF (Shamir is slated to attend the July 26, 2009 screening). There's no better place to grapple with the $64,000 question, 64 years later: How much should Jewish identity be defined by the Holocaust?
The other obvious place where sensitive issues intersect with Jewish self-definition is Israel, which provides the tense setting for French-Israeli director Simone Bitton's wrenching but uneven Rachel. Actually, not Israel so much as Gaza, where 22-year-old American activist Rachel Corrie was killed in 2003 trying to stop a bulldozer encroaching on (and perhaps preparing to destroy) a Palestinian home. Bitton is even more dogged than Shamir in probing the circumstances and facts of the ghastly incident, which suggest a freakish, wholly avoidable tragedy. The documentary jumped to the #1 spot on the hot-button charts as soon as the festival lineup was announced, thanks to local center-right Israel supporters upset -- so they say -- because Corrie's mother was invited to the July 25 show.
There are a bunch of terrific films beyond these two, of course, including the gripping, true-life World War II saga Broken Promise from Slovakia and Refugees, a valuable Israeli documentary exposing the plight of Sudanese emigres fleeing north across the Egyptian border in search of a safe haven. Israel's response to these illegal immigrants evokes the U.S.'s dilemma with Mexicans venturing north, with an even stronger moral imperative: Only a percentage of the Jews attempting to escape Europe before and during World War II were granted entry by the U.S., Britain and other countries, and the rest were essentially doomed to the death camps. That was one of the factors that paved the way for the founding of a Jewish state. So how can a country created by and for refugees deny people in similar straits?
There are some places, I imagine, where raising difficult questions is neither controversial nor provocative. That is truly the Promised Land.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 23-30, 2009 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Aug. 1-6 at the CineArts in Palo Alto, Aug. 1-8 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, Aug. 8-9 at the JCC of San Francisco and Aug. 8-10, 2009 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information visit sfjff.org.