Jewish Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here’s my first, 2017 collection of San Francisco Jewish Film Festival mini-reviews. As usual, I’m starting with the must-sees and ending with the easy-to-misses.


August 1945. Two Orthodox Jews get off the train in a small Hungarian town. Who are they and what do they want? But this movie isn’t about them. It’s about the town, a problematic wedding, fears, guilt, and the locals’ reaction to the strange and oddly terrifying visitors. After all, the townspeople haven’t seen a Jew in years, and some of them profited their neighbors’ disappearances. This beautifully-shot black-and-white film, set in one day, brings to life a community ravaged by war, hate, and guilt, first occupied by the Germans and then the Russians.

  • Centerpiece Narrative Screening: Castro, Wednesday, July 26, 6:20
  • CineArts, Thursday, July 27, 6:10
  • Albany Twin, Saturday, July 29, 6:20
  • Rafael, Sunday, August 6, 2:10

Bending the Arc

If this documentary doesn’t make you feel guilty, you’re probably a sociopath. The film covers more than 30 years of struggle as Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl, Jim Yong Kim, and Partners in Health fight tuberculous, AIDS, and Ebola in the poorest places on the globe. They also fight the World Bank and other organizations that have written off whole populations as expendable. With no narration but plenty of on-camera interviews, Bending the Arc shows how altruism, determination, optimism, and a willingness to learn from your mistakes can make a better world. We should all behave like these people.

Is this really a Jewish film? No. But it does follow the Jewish command tikkun olam – healing the world.

Bending the Arc has already screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

B+ Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Hollywood movie star Hedy Lemarr had a fascinating life, but not a happy one. Her striking beauty won her fame and fortune, but obscured her real work as an inventor. She hated being judged by her looks. She had six short marriages. She suffered from drug addiction. She hid the fact that she was Jewish – even to her children. She got no money and only late acclaim for an invention that made cellphones possible. Director Alexandra Dean made a well-done but conventionally-styled biographical documentary. But when the story is this good, a conventional telling is just fine.

  • CineArts, Wednesday, July 26, 6:10
  • Castro, Sunday, July 30, 8:00 San Francisco closing night
  • Albany Twin, Saturday, August 5, 4:45
  • Rafael, Sunday, August 6, 4:15

C+ Stranger in Paradise

This documentary (or is it a mockumentary) looks at multiple views of Europe’s refugee problem. It focuses on one very white European, in a classroom, talking to African and Middle-Eastern refugees hoping to find new lives in the west. But in each of the three acts, the European has a new set of “students” and takes an entirely different point of view. First, he’s ultra-conservative, telling them that Europe doesn’t want them, shouldn’t take them, and will make them miserable. In Act II, he’s their liberal champion, assuring them that Europe will benefit from their contributions. In the last, he’s a bureaucrat, questioning them and following the rules. It ends with an utterly pointless epilogue.

Another non-Jewish film about tikkun olam.

C- The 90 Minute War

Peace will finally come to the Middle East! Israel and Palestine agree to compete in a soccer match, with the winner getting a country. That’s a great idea for a 20-minute short, but in a feature-length mockumentary, the concept wears thin. Early on, the movie offers some very funny routines: Israeli soldiers hassling the Palestinian team at a checkpoint, the Israeli team’s German coach, consumer products moving through Gaza tunnels. But those high points are few, and get fewer as the movie progresses. The ending, which almost had to be a letdown, is more of a letdown than I expected.