I’m such a good Jew! I just spent the Sabbath at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. And it wasn’t even in San Francisco.
I attended four screenings at the Festival’s first day in this year’s Berkeley portion of the festival. It was also my first movie event at Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theater.
Before I get to the films themselves, I should tell you that the Roda, designed for live theatre, makes a disappointing movie venue. The screen is small and set back, so that even the front row is too far back for someone with my immersive tastes. Worse than that, the screen has vertical and horizontal lines that make it look like it was painted onto a brick wall, as well as annoying crinkles.
The sound, on the other hand, is excellent.
Now, to what I saw:
A Arab Labor: Season 2. This turned out every bit as good as I expected. The festival screened episodes 1, 3, and 8; the last two have not even yet been broadcast in Israel. The further adventures of Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad Alian, trying desperately to fit into a society that rejects him, were as hilarious as the first season. (Did you know that dogs in Israel only bark at Arabs?) But this time, especially in episode 8, writer Sayed Kashua and director Shai Capon (who took audience questions after the screening) had the confidence to dial down the laughs when dramatic points required it. My only complaint: I want to see the entire season. I wasn’t the only one. In the Q&A, I asked if the DVD will be released in this country, and got considerable applause from the audience. Neither Kashua nor Capon knew. But these three episodes screen two more times before the festival is over. Tonight (Sunday) at 8:45 at the Cinearts in Palo Alto, and next Monday, the 9th, at 8:30, at the Rafael.
A- Utopia in Four Movements. Dave Cerf and Sam Green’s meditation on the 20th century’s obsession with utopia was more like a PowerPoint presentation than a conventional documentary, but that didn’t hurt the experience. Green stood beside the screen and narrated live, using a remote control to move from one slide or video clip (mostly video clips) to another. Cerf DJ’d the pre-recorded music off-stage (they’ve used live musicians in other screenings/presentations). Green’s thoughtful commentary discussed Esperanto, Communism (clearly the biggest utopian disaster of the century), and shopping malls. The questions in the Q&A afterwards were more about utopias and ideas than about the documentary, which is high praise. But one woman asked if they’d consider creating a canned version, perhaps filmed before a live audience, to make it more readily available. They seemed reluctant to do so, but I hope they change their minds.
C- The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground. Have you ever been the only person in the theater who didn’t like the show? That was my experience here, and I think I know why. Everyone else was already a fan of the genre-shattering klezmer band, The Klezmatics, while I was merely seeking an introduction. As everyone around me cheered and applauded, I wanted less detail and more depth. Director Erik Anjou gave the audience samples of a lot of songs, but only twice stayed with a song from beginning to end. Maybe he didn’t want to make a concert movie, but every time he cut away, I felt cheated. The non-musical parts of the movie were more successful, but even here there were too many narrative threads. (Besides, how much can you care about a musical group’s history and working methods if you’re not allowed to listen to a complete song?) There’s probably a better documentary inside the material Anjou shot, but I doubt we’ll ever see it.
B- Protektor. Quentin Tarantino isn’t the only filmmaker who can make something flashy, self-referential, and 21st century about the Holocaust. And this work from the Czech Republic does it while taking the Shoah far more seriously than did Inglorious Basterds. A beautiful, nominally Jewish actress is just breaking into movie stardom when Hitler takes over Czechoslovakia and ends her career. Her radio news announcer husband’s career skyrockets, however, as he becomes the Czech voice of National Socialism. It’s a pack with the devil, but it keeps his wife off the transports to nowhere—at least for awhile. Shot with a combination of black and white, muted colors, and assorted tints, and accompanied by a percussion-heavy, throbbing soundtrack, Protektor tries more to be hip than to really put you in its time and place. The stylish touches are occasionally fun, but they also keep up at arms-length from the story.