Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Oddly, and I swear that this is only a coincidence, three of them are French.

Here’s what I thought of them, from best to worst.

A- My Shortest Love Affair

Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.

  • Castro, Wednesday, July 29, 6:30
  • CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, July 30, 6:15
  • California (Berkeley), Monday, August 3, 6:15
  • Rafael, Saturday, August 8, 8:30

The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films

Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their own interviews carry the movie.

  • Castro, Saturday, July 25, 6:50
  • CineArts (Palo Alto),Monday, July 27, 6:30
  • California (Berkeley), Sunday, August 2, 6:30
  • Rafael, Sunday, August 9, 4:20

A La Vie (To Life)

Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story really concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu); married and very much in love with a man who was castrated by the Nazis (Hippolyte Girardot), her desires and her loyalties are in serious conflict. Rose (Suzanne Clément) seems at first to be the healthiest mentally, but her short temper belies issues she doesn’t want to surface. Lily (Johanna ter Steege) seems way ahead of her time as an activist for a feminist, egalitarian Judaism. The story is reasonably well-told, but predictable.

C The Law

A great cause doesn’t always create a great film. France’s struggle to legalize abortion in the mid-1970s comes off as a lot of compromises and backdoor deals done in smoke-filled rooms (literally smoke-filled; it’s France in the 1970s). As the film’s heroine, Minister of Health Simone Veil (Rue Mandar) comes off as steadfast and strong, but not particularly interesting. A subplot concerning a young photographer who wants to become a real journalist shows some human interest, but not enough. The real story, of pregnant women facing disaster, comes in rarely.

So why does this film belong in a Jewish film festival? Veil is a Holocaust survivor (she’s still alive). As the controversy over abortion grows in the film, some of the “pro-life” activists turn to anti-Semitism to attack her. But like all the other bits of human interest in this film, this gets buried under all of the political deals.

C- Mr. Kaplan

In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never succeeds in bringing them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.

  • CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, July 30, 8:35
  • Castro, Sunday, August 2, 5:35
  • Rafael, Friday, August 7, 6:20

SF Jewish Film Festival: 35th edition

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which claims to be “the first and largest festival of its kind,” turns 35 this summer. The 17-day collection of screenings and other events will take place all around the Bay Area.

Whether it really is the first or largest, it is certainly my favorite of what I call ethnic film festivals–those that concentrate on a certain type of person. But my reason is totally subjective: I’m Jewish, so this festival concentrates on people like me.

Nevertheless, I missed Tuesday’s press conference. I had a good excuse. I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail–or at least a very tiny bit of it.

The festival runs from July 23 through August 9 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael.

As near as I can tell, I have not yet seen anything screening in this year’s festival. But here are a few films and events that sound promising.

  • Dough: The opening-night dramedy followed the growing professional relationship between an aging kosher baker and his young Muslim assistant. When the assistant accidentally spills pot into the challah dough…well, I haven’t seen the movie and can’t go beyond that.
  • The Armor of Light: This documentary follows Rob Schenck, an ethnically Jewish evangelical minister and anti-abortion activist who begins to feel a certain contradiction between being pro-gun and pro-life.
  • Freedom of Expression Award: Lee Grant & Tell Me a Riddle: This year’s award goes to actress Lee Grant, who was blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing the cooperate with the anti-Communist witch hunt. Grant directed Tell Me a Riddle, which was screened at the very first San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
  • A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did: Every year, I say I want a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival. And yet, every year, there’s at least one worthwhile film about the Shoah. This British documentary, about the sons of two Nazi executions, just might be it this year.

I’ll try to view some of these films before the festival, and will let you know what I think about them.

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.

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