Hava Nagila & Opening Night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival got off to a slow start, but when the movie finally started–nearly 45 minutes late–it was worth the wait.

No, there weren’t crowd or (as far as I know) technical problems. The show started on time. It was just that the first part of the show was irritating and boring.

The Pre-Show

Actually, it started pretty well, with a montage of SFJFF trailers from past years, in chronological order. The old trailers were a lot of fun, but last year’s and this year’s pale by comparison, so the montage ended on a low note.

Then the talks began. Program Director Jay Rosenblatt came onstage and gave a long and dull speech. Then Executive Director Lexi Leban came up and gave a worse one. Reading from sheets of paper, pausing frequently mid-sentence to find her place, she bored everyone to tears. She knew it, too, but she just kept plodding along.

Finally, when it was past 7:35, she introduced the film’s director, Roberta Grossman, who immediately won the audience with a joke about long speeches. She spoke briefly and with wit. Then the movie (and the fun) began.

The Movie

A Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself to seriously. Even the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. Where you expect to read, under the person’s name, something like "Professor of Musicology hava_nagilaat Such and Such University," you instead get "He has a PhD." This is a fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song. And yet, the film informs as well as any serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics written by early Zionists–although which early Zionists is a matter of debate. Hava Nagila never lost its Jewish identity, even as it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte and a tune known all around the world. This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life.

Last night’s screening was the film’s world premiere.

You have three more chances to see Hava Nagila before the festival closes:

Q&A with the Filmmakers

After the movie, director Roberta Grossman and her team stepped onto the Castro’s stage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • Grossman: The director doesn’t make the film. The director is just the greediest  person on it.
  • Grossman, again, on choosing the subject: Our daughter said "Please make a happy film, next time."
  • Screenwriter Sophie Sartain on writing for documentaries: it came together very slowly. You rewrite it many, many times. You write what you hope the people to be interviewed will say. Then they say something better. The final draft is in the editing room.
  • They haven’t asked permission to screen the documentary’s many movie and TV clips. They believe that fair use will protect them.
  • Did they get sick of listening to that song? "Yes, we got sick of the song, and we tried to cut it so that you wouldn’t get sick of the song."
  • They hope to get limited theatrical releases in New York and LA. The rest of us will have to wait for the DVD. You can track the movie’s status at. havanagilamovie.com.

My Interview with Director Grossman

Late this morning, I was able to interview director Roberta Grossman. What follows is a rough transcript, edited for readability:

Where did those comic titles ("He has a PHD," "Pretty good for 94") come from?

It was one of those wacky ideas that pops into your head. I don’t remember who thought of it. We were trying to play with the conventions of the documentary.

The song is both a fun party song and a deep,Chasidic nigun. We wanted the film to reflect that.

The movie ends with the song Celebrate. Why not end with the song the movie is about?

We wanted to make a loving nod to all that bad Jewish dancing and the spirit of celebration., we thought it would be real fun.

Celebrate is now part of the Jewish-American experience.

Following up on the writing question from last night’s Q&A: Why do you start writing a documentary before interviewing people?

The writing starts on day one. You’re telling a story. You have to have some sense of a beginning, middle, and end. I always write a script before I begin shooting.

It’s also part of the process of writing proposals for foundations. They need to know that you can tell them a story.

The image quality of most of the clips looked pretty bad (Exodus was the exception). Where did the clips come from?

It’s complicated. Two of the movie clips will be better the next time.

Because we’re using fair use, we’re not asking the studios for sources. We’re at the mercy of the quality of the clips that are available. They came from many sources, including YouTube, old VHS copies, and DVDs.

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One Response

  1. [...] “This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life.” Lincoln Spector, BAYFLICKS.NET [...]

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