As I write this, I’ve seen four movies that will screen in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. They’re split evenly between narratives and documentaries. One is a 1933 classic. The others are new, and will all be distributed after the festival (possibly long after the festival) by Menemsha Films – a company that seems to be becoming the big fish in the small pond of independent Jewish film. It also distributed last year’s Women’s Balcony and 1945.
Here are the films, in order from best to worst:
A Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
A professional performer at the age of three, Sammy Davis Jr. could sing and tap dance like a pro. He could do spot-on impressions. He climbed to the top of the entertainment pyramid, becoming part of Frank Sinatra’s Rat pack, while openly fighting the racism pushing all black performers down. Samuel D. Pollard’s creatively conceived documentary starts with what is probably his most embarrassing mistake: supporting and even hugging Richard Nixon. From there it follows his rise and fall as an entertainer, as well as his constant fight against racism. Very much worth seeing.
How does this film fit into a Jewish film festival? Davis converted to Judaism. Part of the spotlight Black•ish / Jew•ish.
- CineArts, Sunday July 22, 1:45
- Castro, Sunday July 29, 7:45. Closing night of the Castro run.
- Piedmont, Saturday August 4, 4:00
- Rafael, Sunday August 5, 4:10
A- Red Cow
A good coming of age story needs an interesting youth in rebellion against their society. And when that society is a violence-leaning, West Bank Orthodox Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, there’s a lot to rebel against. Benni, a teenage girl with strikingly red hair, lives with her widowed father. Her sexuality blossoms in ways not acceptable in this extremely militant and religious community. Benni and her father have a young, female, red calve, which the father sees as a sign for holy war. A story of a free spirit in a community where freedom isn’t accepted.
- Castro, Monday, July 23, 11:30AM
- CineArts, Tuesday, July 24, 8:15
- Albany Twin, Tuesday, July 31, 8:25
- Rafael, Sunday August 5, 8:30
B Baby Face
This 1933 Warner Brothers social drama is the sort of movie for which the term pre-code was coined. When we first meet Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), her cruel father pimps her out to working-class guys. But she’s smarter and more ambitious than that. She picks a big company and climbs the corporate ladder – one bed at a time. A not-yet famous John Wayne shows up as one of her very short-term lovers. A year and a half after Baby Face came out, it could not have been made. Part of the spotlight Hands On / Hands Off.
How does this film fit into a Jewish film festival? To be honest, it doesn’t fit at all. But it does fit into Hands On / Hands Off.
- Castro, Thursday, July 26, 11:30AM
C- The Waldheim Waltz
How can a film with such a musical name be so emotionally remote? Ruth Beckermann’s documentary examines a fascinating true story: How former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim faced election as Austria’s President in 1986 while news of his Nazi past blew up in his face. The documentary sticks to the events of 1986 and is made up mostly of television news footage. It’s a fascinating and frightening story, and I suspect that Director Ruth Beckermann missed a lot of nuisance. But aside from a few rare moments, Beckermann’s film feels skin deep and emotionally flat.
Part of the spotlight Austria’s Sordid Past.
- Castro, Tuesday July 24, 6:10
- CineArts, Wednesday July 25, 6:00
- Albany Twin, Monday July 30, 6:00
- Rafael, Saturday August 4, 4:05