One highlight of this year's Jewish Film Festival is a group of films collected in a category called People of the Book.
That's a little play on words there. It comes, originally, from the Koran: the people being Jews and the book being the Torah. Or Christians and the Gospels. But mostly Jews, a blessedly intellectual bunch, who found a way to like the sound of that and somewhere along the line started saying it about themselves also. And not just in reference to books of prayer but to books in general, as the title of this festival subsection suggests. Usefully, it contains five motion-picture portraits of writers.
Of course this necessitates an acknowledgment of some fundamental differences between reading and going to the movies. "Filmmakers take on a major challenge when they endeavor to bring writers to life on the screen," says SFJFF Executive Director Peter L. Stein. "The writer's craft is non-visual, a writer's work habits are solitary and his or her art intended for audiences as an interior, not a communal, experience."
So what's a filmmaker to do? Show them writing! Interview them in front of their bookshelves! Throw a camera on your shoulder and take a walk with them, encouraging the vocalization of profundities!
You might be surprised how well this works. The key, probably, is starting with good writers. With Israeli novelist Amos Oz, for instance, in Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams, you get him saying, among many other things, that if he could have a role in peace talks it would be to tell the sound technician to turn off the mic anytime anybody mentions the past.
"Ahead of Time"
Direct documentary portraiture also does the trick with such deeply literate subjects as the precocious and history-sweeping journalist Ruth Gruber (in Ahead of Time), the feminist and activist Grace Paley (in Grace Paley: Collected Shorts) and the Israeli Arab satirist and sitcom writer Sayed Kashua, this year's Freedom of Expression Award honoree (Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared).
"A Room and a Half"
In the case of the Soviet exile and Nobel winner Joseph Brodsky, on the other hand, a healthy dose of nonlinear narrative structure and poignant animated whimsy seems apt. "No sense in trying to observe the right order of my memories," our dramatized Brodsky tells us in the experimental biopic A Room and a Half. "Their lack of continuity is like the movies, right?"
Here, it's a group of movies that practically reek of fresh paper. How splendid. Though challenging at times, there is just something so cozy about getting inside these writers' minds. It's comforting, but also more enriching than seasonal multiplex escapism.
The 30th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 24-Aug. 9, 2010, at the Castro Theatre and the JCC in San Francisco, the Roda in Berkeley, the CineArts in Palo Alto and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information visit sfjff.org.