A Day of Two Film Festivals

On Sunday, for the first time in my life, I attended two film festivals on the same day. Only in the Bay Area.

Modern Cinema/Black Powers: Reframing Hollywood

SFFILM and SFMOMA don’t officially call their various series festivals, but they qualify in my book. When you can see eight films in three days, all built around a theme, that’s a festival. You can read my my festival preview.

A- Watermelon Man

The last saw Melvin Van Peebles’ only Hollywood film before it opened. My stepfather cut the sound effects, and I attended the screening for filmmakers and their families. I’ve been thinking about the movie in recent years, pondering that it may be time for a remake.

Watermelon Man is a very funny movie, and a very pointed one. A white, a middle-aged, middle-class bigot wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers that he’s suddenly turns black. Everything changes. His wife doesn’t want him. His kids are afraid of him. He can’t jog without neighbors calling the police.

Godfrey Cambridge gives a remarkable performance, both comic and serious, including a first act in whiteface. As he slowly begins to accept his situation, he gains a dignity he previously lacked. Not surprisingly, the original working title was The Night the Sun Came Up.

Watermelon Man is howlingly funny at times, but absolutely serious in it’s intent. Too bad it’s largely forgotten.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

After a comedy about American racism, I crossed town to the Castro for two movies about European Antisemitism. I’m covering this festival extensively.

Who Will Write Our History

I’ve seen a lot of films, narrative and documentary, about the Warsaw Ghetto, but I never felt the reality of life in that hellhole the way I did with this one.

Throughout the Ghetto period, a group of courageous Jews recorded everything they could. They wrote what they saw, what they did, and how they felt. If the Germans had found out what they were doing (they never did), they would have been killed and their writings destroyed.

Director Roberta Grossman broke a lot of rules – mixing narrative and documentary techniques – to create a stronger emotional punch. In the documentary sequences, American actors (including Joan Allen and Adrian Brody) read English translations of the secretly-written reports, while we see Nazi-shot footage of the Ghetto. In the narrative sequences, Polish actors play the heroes who wrote these reports, as they struggle through a recreation of the Ghetto. The effect was stunning.

By the way, Grossman also made the much lighter documentary, Hava Nagila: The Movie.

After the screening, there was a short Q&A with Grossman. Some highlights, edited for brevity and clarity:

  • On why the story of this writing isn’t well-known: The archive was too honest. It has Jewish heroes and Jewish villains. People had to make moral choices moment to moment.
  • There were 60,000 pages and objects recovered. The writing is incredible. There’s about 100 diaries; some of the most profound I’ve ever read.
  • Treblinka (where Jews were sent from the Ghetto) was’t a work camp. It was a death camp.
  • On the narrative sequences: I really want my films to not to be accepted. I don’t like to think of them as reenactments. I prefer to call them dramatizations.

You have one more chance to see Who Will Write Our History at the film festival: Saturday, July 28, 6:00, at the Albany Twin. As far as I know, there are no plans for a regular release.

C+ The City Without Jews

This one really disappointed me, but then I was so-much looking forward to it. A European nation expels all its Jews, only to find out that the country needs them. It’s meant as satire, of course, but Director H.K. Breslauer couldn’t find a way to tell the story visually – or maybe he didn’t even try. The story is told almost entirely in intertitles. As such, it loses most of its drama and its comedy.

The film is dull, and several characters look so much alike you can’t tell them apart. The movie got a bit better in the final third, but not enough to save it.

Although this 1924 silent was meant as an attack on anti-Semitism, it seems to believe that Jews run the banks and stock markets.

Sascha Jacobsen’s original musical score, performed live Sunday night, did its job well.

Note: I corrected a word in Roberta Grossman’s Q&A. My thanks to my wife, Madeline Prager, for fixing this.