Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst.

Curiously, the two best are also the least Jewish. I guess they were so good they had to be added anyway.

A Swim Little Fish Swim
Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, and the very real responsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his frustrated wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.

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So what makes this a Jewish film? In one extended sequence, Leeward and his family go to his parent’s home for Shabbat.

A- Comedy Warriors
Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they’re missing feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.

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And what makes this one a Jewish film? One of the five is a religious Jew. Also, although this is never discussed in the film, standup comedy is essentially a Jewish art honed in the Catskills. But that’s a bit of a stretch.

I’m glad to say that I don’t have to answer that question for the remaining three films.

B God’s Slave
A Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.

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C+ Anywhere Else
A graduate student in Berlin–stuck in academic and emotional crises–returns to her crazy Jewish family in Israel. Her German boyfriend soon follows. That sounds like a comedy, but it plays here as straight drama. That would be fine, except that too many of the characters are merely skin deep. There are, fortunately, exceptions. The lead character has moments of realistic angst. Her brother is a truly original, unpredictable joker with something eating him inside.  Her boyfriend, presumably raised to deplore his country’s Nazi past, finds the militarization of Israeli life frightening and disorienting. But you have to put that up against the stereotypical Jewish mother, the clueless father, and the angry sister who couldn’t keep her husband home. For too much of its runtime, Anywhere Else feels like a paint-by-the-numbers drama.

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C The Village of Peace
On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.

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Note: I altered this article on July 23, corrected the time that The Village of Peace will play at the Castro on August 1.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

So far, I’ve screened three films and one TV episode that will play this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them:

B+ Afternoon Delight
The plot sounds like broad, comic farce: A young Jewish mother and housewife invites a stripper and sometimes prostitute to move into her home and become her imageyoung son’s nanny. When Afternoon Delight tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. But writer/director Jill Soloway mostly plays it straight, taking this absurd premise and seeing what might realistically come out of it. The result is mostly thoughtful, entertaining, grounded in reality, and sexy.

Afternoon Delight plays only once at the festival, as the Berkeley Big Night presentation. That will be at the California on Saturday, August 3, at 6:30. It will open for a regular theatrical release on August 30.

B+ The Trials of Muhammad Ali
A well-made documentary about a great subject, The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks a man who is arguably the most important athlete of the last 50 years. At the age of 22, with very little experience, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of imagethe world. A devout member of the Nation of Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, took on controversy, and risked both jail and a destroyed career for resisting the draft ("No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger"). Eventually, he would return to the ring and more triumphs. Director Bill Siegel has made a competent and conventional documentary, but Ali’s story and charisma makes it a very moving and exciting tale.

Just one problem: There’s absolutely nothing Jewish about this film except the director’s last name. The Festival’s explanation for why it’s here, "certain films when placed in a Jewish context inspire truly Jewish conversation," doesn’t convince me.

Despite that problem, The Trials of Muhammad Ali will screen four times: At the Castro on Sunday, July 28, at 7:15; the New Parkway on Friday, August 2, at 7:00; the Rafael on Saturday, August 10, at 6:00, and at the Grand Lake on Sunday, August 11, at 4:35.

Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will
I’ve only seen one episode of this Canadian docu-comedy series–I believe the festival will screen three. Not to be confused with Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi original, this imageshow follows Hotz as he attempts in each episode to do something decent and good. In the one I saw, he tried to get his 75-year-old mother–a widow for two decades–to rekindle her sex life. A couple of scenes were howlingly funny–especially the one where Annie Sprinkle shows her a variety of vibrators–and most of it at least generated a smile. Since I’ve only seen a third of what will be presented, I’m not giving this show a grade.

Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will will only screen once at the festival, at the JCCSF, on Saturday, August 3, at 8:45.

C+ The Zigzag Kid
This year’s festival opens not with a bang, but with a modestly entertaining, family-friendly fizzle. Days before his bar mitzvah, the son of a great detective and a long-imagedead mother finds himself on a journey of adventure and personal discovery. His main companion just might be a master criminal. The story is not quite rousing enough to be fine escapist entertainment, and only rarely thoughtful enough to be anything else. A few clever plot twists keep it from being entirely predictable. Innocuous and mildly charming, The Zigzag Kid is safe for any child old enough to read subtitles.

The Zigzag Kid opens this year’s Festival at the Castro, Thursday, July 25, at 6:30. It also plays at the Cinearts at Palo Alto Square on Sunday, August 4 at 1:50, Berkeley’s California Theatre on Tuesday, August 6, at 6:15, and the Rafael on Monday, August 12, at 6:10.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival officially announced its 33rd run this morning. Probably the largest of all the "identity film festivals" in the area, it will play five venues around the Bay Area from July 25 through August 12.

This year’s theme, "Life through a Jew(ish) lens," raises two questions: What does that mean and how do you pronounce parentheses in Jew(ish)? It means that the festival is inclusive–meant to attract all kinds of Jews, including those whom Executive Director Lexi Leban described as "guilty by association." And Jew(ish) is pronounced "Jew (pause) ish."

As usual, the festival will start at the Castro, and remain there for eight days. Then the festival will hop the Bay for a week in Berkeley. Shorter runs in Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael will round it out.

For the third time in its history, the Festival is moving its Berkeley location, and this time, for the better. Rather than the Roda Theater, which is better designed for live performance than cinema, it will play the California’s large, downstairs auditorium–probably the best commercial movie house in Berkeley and certainly the largest. Other East Bay venues are the Piedmont, the New Parkway, and the Grand Lake.

Some highlights, categories (this festival loves to put films into categories), and promising titles:

  • The San Francisco Centerpiece film, The Attack, looks promising. The protagonist, a Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, has his comfortable life turned upside-down when his missing wife is accused of terrorism.
  • The JewTube category spotlights Israeli TV. It will include the pilot for the successful series Prisoners of War, followed by a discussion of how it was adopted into the American series Homeland. Also in this series–some episodes from Arab Labor: Season 4 (you can read what I thought of seasons 1, 2, and 3).
  • And speaking of television, we’ll also get some episodes of the Canadian comedy series Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will, not to be mistaken for Leni Riefenstahl’s original.
  • Before the Revolution looks at Iranian Jews who had to escape that country in 1979. It will screen with a short about one Iranian Jew’s fascination with Jerry Lewis.
  • Among the historical figures whose lives will be examined in narratives and documentaries, you’ll find works on Art Spiegelman, Hannah Arendt, Muhammad Ali, and Wilhelm Reich

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.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve been able to preview three shows coming to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which opens a week from today. Here’s what I thought of them:

B+ Under African Skies
You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which examines the making of Paul Simon’s hit Graceland, and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. It mixes the politics vs. art issues with more conventional making-of footage–jam sessions, mixing, and so on. But it left me, like so many other such documentaries do, wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end.

B Arab Labor Season 3
I loved the first season of this hit Israeli sitcom, as well as the three episodes I saw of season 2. But I can’t be quite as enthusiastic about this year’s subset of season 3. The humor and satire hit home, Arab_Labor3but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Arabs, and the next day the other way around. With much of the satire aimed at the obvious target of celebrity culture, the bite gets lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.

C+ The Day I Saw Your Heart
Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, doesn’t much care for her sixtyish father. He’s critical, cruel, and so emotionally distant that he can’t get excited by his The Day I Saw Your Heartmuch younger third wife’s pregnancy. Neither can Justine, who doesn’t want another child raised by that monster. He also has a habit of befriending her boyfriends as soon as she breaks up with them. Then, in the course of her work, she discovers that he’s got a heart condition. The Day I Saw Your Heart starts as comedy and ends as drama, but works only moderately as either. Justine herself is a reasonably interesting character, and well played by Mélanie Laurent, but everyone else seems only a foil for her reactions.

Note: This post was corrected on 7/18. I found errors in some of the show times.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

This morning, one month before opening night, I attended the press conference announcing this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It will run in seven different venues around the Bay Area from July 19 through August 6. The largest runs will be at the Castro and Berkeley’s Roda Theater.

A few noteworthy items:

  • A lot of music documentaries this year. The festival opens with Hava Nagila (The Movie), and closes with A.K.A Doc Pomus. In between you can catch Gypsy Davy, Under African Skies, Ben Lee: Catch My Disease, and God’s Fiddler.
  • This year’s Freedom of Expression Award goes to actor and ’70s icon Elliot Gould. The program honoring him will include a screening of his latest film, Dorfman.
  • The Centerpiece presentation, The Other Son, concerns two 18-year-old boys, one Jewish Israeli, the other Palestinian, who discover they were switched at birth. Oddly, this appears to not be a comedy.
  • There will, of course, be "four or five" Holocaust films. I’m still hoping for a Jewish Film Festival without them.
  • You’ll get another chance to see The Law in These Parts, a very good documentary about the occupation that screened at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. You’ll find my thoughts on that one here.
  • If you’re under 30, this festival is a real bargain. The Millennials Pass gets you access to 60 films for only $25.

After the conference, the press was treated to a screening of the first three episodes of Arab Labor‘s third season. In 2008, the festival screened the entire first season. It was brilliant. In 2010, they screened three episodes from season 2. My only disappointment was that they didn’t show the rest of it.

But I can’t be quite as enthusiastic about this year’s subset of season 3. The humor and satire hit home, but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad Alian tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Palestinians, and the next day things get turned around. With much of the satire aimed at celebrity culture (an obvious target), the bite was lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.

The best scenes involved a young interfaith couple. If you’ve seen the previous seasons, you know who I’m talking about. It appears that, in one of the season 2 episodes that didn’t screen here, they got married. Now they’re new parents, and even though neither of them are religious, parenthood creates ethnic content.

By the way, I recently discovered that season 1 is available on DVD in the US. You can rent it from Netflix, or buy it from numerous online outlets.

Jewish Film Festival Report: Cemeteries and Gladiators

I attended two San Francisco Jewish Film Festival events at the Castro today. Here’s what I saw:

C In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery
The last thing you’d expect to find in Berlin is a Jewish cemetery that was consecrated in the 19th century. But Weissensee is just that—a final resting place that the Nazis left alone.

You might guess that a documentary on this subject would devote considerable timeBritta Wauer Film Weissensee Friedhof to this enigma, but director Britta Wauer gives it only seconds. One interview subject tells us that legends warned Germans that there was a curse on Weissensee. Then another says that the SS just didn’t get around to it, and that if the war had lasted a few more months, it would have been desecrated like most of the Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

The rest of the movie tells us about people who are buried there, people who visit deceased relatives, people who work or once worked there, and even people living on the premises. We also learn a bit about Jewish burial practices.

Some of the stories are fascinating, but others just seem to mark time. This made-for-TV documentary makes a reasonably interesting way to kill 90 minutes, if you have nothing better to do.

It plays again on Saturday, August 6, at 4:40, at the Roda Theater in Berkeley.

A Spartacus and the Freedom of Expression Award
Now this was a great way to spend an afternoon!

This year, the Festival presented its Freedom of Expression Award to Hollywood star, kirk-douglas-1living legend, executive producer, and stroke survivor Issur Danielovitch—better known by his professional name: Kirk Douglas. Douglas earned the award more than 50 years ago, when he insisted that black-listed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo receive credit for his screenplay for the 1960 Spartacus (Douglas executive-produced as well as starred in the epic).

Fifteen years after a stroke robbed him of much of his ability to talk, Douglas spoke to the audience in a strong if occasionally difficult-to-understand acceptance speech. He spoke of the importance of free expression in a democracy, and that how without it we are all slaves. He talked about Trumbo’s adaptation of the original novel, written by the equally controversial Howard Fast (“Fast wrote a horrible screenplay”). He mentioned his second Bar Mitzvah in 1999 (at the age of 83), and how he plans to have a third to get himself into the Guinness Book of Records.

Then they screened Spartacus. I’ve only seen it theatrically once before—when it was restored in 1991. Between the Castro’s magnificent screen and the enthusiastic audience, this was easily my best Spartacus experience.

Spartacus is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of toga epics. Yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. One scene tells you more about gladiators than that whole Russell Crowe silliness from 2000. Douglas, Trumbo, and director Stanley Kubrick don’t give us the glory of Rome, but the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of a seemingly invincible dictatorship. It’s a stirring tale of rebellion that leads to inevitable tragedy.

This was one of the great roadshow productions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Originally shown in reserved-seat theaters at high prices, it runs for over three hours, not including the overture or the intermission. This is a type of weighty epic spectacle that doesn’t exist anymore, and really requires something like the Castro to make it work its best.

My only regret: They screened it in 35mm. It’s better in 70mm (I assume; I’ve never seen it that way), but no such print is currently available.

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