Sunday Docs at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I went to the Castro Sunday afternoon to catch two documentaries screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It wasn’t until Monday before I realized what they had in common. Both centered on a very old person.

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 when she was interviewed for this film, worked as a secretary and stenographer for Joseph Goebbels during World War II. She did not believe in Nazi ideology, but she joined the party in 1933 because it seemed good for her career. At that time, her best friend was Jewish. After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison.

Clearly, she carries a lot of guilt. But she also carries a lot of denial.

The film’s four directors shot these interviews in black and white extreme close-up, against a black background. The audience is not allowed to see anything except her wrinkled face. We never hear the voices of the people interviewing her.

The documentary doesn’t always show her face. It often cuts to clips and outtakes from American, German, and Soviet propaganda films–including some of the most horrifying Holocaust footage I’ve ever seen.

I found the film troubling and frightening. With its story of a people giving up their freedom and basic humanity for a demigod, I couldn’t get thoughts of Donald Trump out of my mind.

I give it an A-.

After the film, two of the four directors came on stage for Q&A. Some highlights, paraphrased from my notes:

  • When you made the film, did you know how timely it would be? (This question got huge applause.) Europe is shifting to the right, and it’s happening here as well.
  • Because of her age, we never knew how long we could interview her.
  • Was she truthful? Yes. She stuck to her own experiences. For instance, she didn’t tell us how Goebel’s children died (they were poisoned by their mother), she told us how she found out about it.
  • Is she still alive, and has she seen the film? She’s still alive at 105. She saw the film. She found it interesting to “look at your life and see all the things you did wrong.”
  • During the interview, she went through her whole life, and it triggered something every day. We repeated a lot of questions over and over. In the end she gave completely different answers. There was a process in her.
  • It’s not so much about her personal guilt, but about human nature.
  • Do you think she’s a criminal? She’s guilty, yes, of course.

A German Life will play one more time in the Festival, at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, Sunday, August 7, at 2:15.

Freedom of Speech Award: Norman Lear

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival hands out an award to someone who has fought for our First Amendment rights. This year, the Freedom of Speech Award went to television producer Norman Lear.

Lear isn’t quite as old as Brunhilde Pomsel, but he’s turning 94 this week, and is still working. He’s recently completed his memoirs, and is working on a new TV show for Netflix.

Before bringing Lear up on stage for an interview, we were treated to a screening of the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. The film is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, which means for the time being, I have to keep my review short. Here it goes:

In the 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television with controversial sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, then became a full-time political activist creating the organization People for the American Way. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have created a warm, sympathetic, and funny documentary about Lear. Of course it’s funny; comedy is his lifelong trade. But parts of the story felt incomplete, such as a happy marriage hits trouble and then…he was married to someone else.

I give it a B+.

After the film, Lear and former SFJFF Executive Director Peter Stein came on stage for an interview. Some paraphrased highlights:

  • What is it like to watch a form of you in this documentary? All my life I’ve been an audience member. I sit down to what I’m watching and say “Take me. I’m yours.”
  • I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of America’s right hand. What I mean is that the man is the fool he is, the asshole he is, and I believe that the American people understand this.

This was followed by an audience Q&A. Unfortunately, as soon as Lear answered an audience question, Stein would ask another, related question, eating up time that should have been used for more audience participation.

  • How did you get Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family? I met him when I worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He begged to be on the show.
  • How you get your sense of comedy? If your father goes to jail when you’re nine years of age, and a guy is buying your father’s favorite chair, and the guy says “Well Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” you understand the foolishness of the human condition.
  • Shooting sitcoms in front of a live audience? I love performing with a live audience. If the audience didn’t laugh, that was it. We didn’t use a laugh track.
  • I created Archie Bunker on paper, but I never saw the real Archie Bunker until I saw Carroll O’Connor. Nobody could write the Archie-isms like he could speak them.
  • On Jean Stapleton: She was always where she was. We’d ask What would Jesus do. That’s how we wrote Edith.

For some strange reason, the Festival had placed a painting on a stand on the stage. Near the end of the Q&A, it collapsed. Lear proclaimed “Now that’s funny!” He got a big laugh on that one.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will screen one more time in the Festival, at the Rafael, Sunday, August 7, at 2:10. But it will screen three more times at the Rafael that week–not connected with the Festival. PBS will eventually broadcast it as part of the American Masters series.

Frank Zappa doc forces you to Eat That Question

B- Documentary

Directed by Thorsten Schütte

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from an interview. It’s artificial; it’s unpleasant; it’s only two steps away from the Inquisition.

And that captures the film’s biggest problem. We hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words. We don’t hear his private words, as we did in the Marlon Brando doc, Listen to Me Marlon. Nor do we hear from the people who knew and loved him. Fortunately, Zappa always made an interesting interview subject–blunt, opinionated, impossible to pin down, and often obscene. But still, this film never lets us see what made him tick.

Frank Zappa hit the cultural radar as the 1960s became what we think of as The Sixties (although there’s one TV clip with Steve Allen that appears to be from the 50s). With his long hair, his big mustache, and his vocabulary spiked with words that polite people didn’t say in those days, he seems to be the ultimate hippy–although he despised that word and preferred to be called a freak. He talked about artistic integrity and criticized American materialism. But he didn’t do or approve of drugs (other than tobacco–you rarely see him without a cigarette), and his tunes were often too complex and sophisticated to dance to. He also composed classical music.

Director Thorsten Schütte didn’t shoot new footage for Eat that Question, and if he interviewed anyone for this movie, it didn’t make the final cut. The film lacks a narration. Almost the entire runtime is made up of archival footage of Zappa performing or giving interviews. The rest is Zappa rehearsing, Zappa making TV appearances, and Zappa testifying before Congress attacking censorship. The entire film is pillarboxed in the pre-HDTV 4×3 aspect ratio in which all of these performances and interviews were shot.

Fortunately, the film has a good deal of concert footage–something that many recent music documentaries lack. Aside from the enjoyment of the music, these scenes show us how closely he controlled his band, The Mothers of Invention. Long before Bruce Springsteen became famous, Zappa was very much The Boss.

Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday. At that point in his life, he was concentrating on classical music– selling out concert halls in Europe while Americans thought of him as a has-been ’60s rocker.

Frank Zappa deserves an excellent documentary. Here, he gets a merely good one.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

A- Music documentary

Directed by Morgan Neville

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma decided to take his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created The Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them.

Documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies20 Feet from Stardom) captures the enthusiasm these talented performers have for their work. While it looks at their problems and suffering (which are significant), it shows the consolation they find when playing–especially together.

The film follows the ensemble and several of the individual musicians within it, creating a study of world music, its importance, and what one has to go through to create it.

Not everyone approves of such musical mixing. Many members of the ensemble were criticized in their native countries for “diluting” their cultural heritage. Never mind that art constantly evolves; there are purists everywhere.

The musicians that Morgan focuses on include the Iranian master of the kamancheh, Kayhan Kalhor; Ma calls him his brother. There are others. Wu Man plays the pipa–a stringed instrument from her native China–and in one scene plays an electrified one. Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato shows the charisma of Bruce Springsteen as she merges her Galicia musical roots with just about any genre–including rock.

And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma himself, who comes off as a modest, self-effacing, nice guy. Like Buster Keaton, he never really chose his career; fame found him as a seven-year-old prodigy. It’s given him incredible success, but at a price. He tells us in the film that in the 35 years of his marriage, he was on the road 22 of them.

Of course, Ma’s travails pale in comparison to those of the musicians who came from truly oppressive countries. Kalhor had to leave an Iran increasingly intolerant of artists who didn’t toe the line. Wu Man suffered in Communist China. The film becomes surprisingly political when discussing these issues. Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh cries about the losses among his family and friends, all because of the current war in Syria. He boils in anger at the refugee crisis, as Neville shows us the crowded, snow-drenched camps where people are freezing to death hoping to be admitted into a safe haven.

Much as I enjoyed The Music of Strangers, I have to admit that it
suffers from the problem so prevalent in recent music documentaries: There isn’t enough music. I would have easily sat through another 30 or even 45 minutes of this film if those minutes were of concert footage.

June Film Festivals

I don’t have to tell you about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; I already have. But here are two other festivals coming up next month.

SF DocFest (June 2-16)

If you prefer your cinema without fiction, this is the festival for you. Here you’ll find documentaries about East LA, LSD, two-dollar bills, Internet sex workers, and, of course, music. I haven’t seen anything in this festival, so I have no opinions.

DocFest opens with a surfing documentary called It Ain’t Pretty. Don’t expect Frankie and Annette, or even bikinis. These are Northern California surfers, which means that they wear wetsuits. And they’re all women.

It Ain’t Pretty

The closing-night show, Silicon Cowboys, is about a piece of tech history that only old-timers like me remember: the fall of the once important Compaq Computers.

Frameline (June 16 -26)

Now in its 40th year, the world’s oldest LGBTQ film festival is not about a particular type of film, such as a documentary (although it certainly has plenty of them). It’s about a particular type of person—the sort who tends to throw North Carolina into a hissy fit.

Again, I haven’t seen anything in the festival. But here are some that intrigue me enough to make me want to catch them:

The Intervention: This American relationship comedy involves a group of friends trying to convince an unhappily married couple to divorce. But some of the interventionists need their own interventions.

Summertime: Politics and love intertwine in this French romance set in the 1970s. A closeted farm girl goes to Paris and falls in love with a feminist.


The Freedom to Marry: A documentary that we all know has a happy ending.

Being 17: Another French film, about two very different teenage boys forced to live under the same roof. Thing’s get complicated.

Thursday: The last day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two movies on the last day of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. The first one was directed by someone named Ross. The second by someone named Moss. Neither of them was a loss.

Frank & Lola

I saw this at the New Mission, and thankfully, it was in the big, downstairs Theater 1.

Director or Programming Rachel Rosen welcomed us to “the last matinee of the festival.” She explained that writer/director Matthew Ross was in town, but under the weather. There was no Q&A.

Frank & Lola is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, so I have to keep my review short:

This psychological mystery and romantic drama examines an excessively jealous man. It starts with a very hot sex scene–except that Frank (Michael Shannon) feels a little reluctant about starting a relationship. He worries about being hurt. He’s also naturally paranoid, and can’t stand to see Lola (Imogen Poots) even talking to another man. On the other hand, Lola really does seem to be cheating on him. His search to undercover Lola’s secrets takes him from their home in Las Vegas–where he’s an upcoming chef–to Paris and some exceedingly seedy pleasures, and then into his own deep fears.

I give the film an A-. It will likely get a theatrical release.

Closing Night: The Bandit

I went to the Castro for the official closing night screening of The Bandit (although five other movies started screening after this one).

After introductions by Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, and the director of the night’s film, Jesse Moss, we watched The Bandit.

Allegedly about the making of the 1977 surprise box office hit, Smokey and the Bandit, this documentary is really a platonic, touching love story between two very macho men–Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. Reynolds, of course, was a top movie star. Hal Needham was a top stuntman. He was also Reynolds’ stuntman, until he found a new career by directing Smokey. The two men complimented each other professionally, and they were the best of friends. Even when they were rich, they shared a house for eleven years.

When Needham got the idea for Smokey and the Bandit, and decided to direct it, Reynolds used his star power to get it funded, albeit at a very low budget. The studio thought it would tank, and it did just that in the big cities. But it was a huge hit in small towns, especially in the south.

Bandit doesn’t cover the making of the movie all that much. It shows us a brief scene about shooting a stunt or arguing with Universal executives, than it cuts away to something else in the long relationship between these two men. Moss has made a charming, sympathetic, enjoyable portrait of two very successful good old boys. But both Reynolds and Needham come off as near perfect; the lack of warts makes me a big suspicious.

I give the movie a B+.

By the way, Smokey and the Bandit wasn’t the only surprise hit to come out the last week of May, 1977. Star Wars premiered two days before Smokey. The Bandit doesn’t mention this.

After the movie, Moss and two of his assistants (I didn’t get their names) came on stage for a Q&A. Rosen moderated. Some highlights:

  • On Reynold’s participation in the documentary: When we went to his house, it was a little like Sunset Blvd. Would I end up dead in his pool? He’s an incredible movie star but he’s disappeared. But Burt was surprisingly open. Really cooperative.
  • Needham’s widow told us that Hal hated documentaries. I wanted to make one that Hal would enjoy.
  • Why Sally Fields wasn’t interviewed (she and Reynold became an item while making Smokey): She works a lot. She just works. We weren’t able to talk to her. And I was much more interested in the relationship with Hal.
  • Burt Reynolds as an actor: Look at Boogle Nights or Deliverance. He really was capable of a great performance.
  • I just wanted to make a fun film with lots of car crashes. It’s a buddy movie, it’s an action comedy. I wanted to see this film.

The Bandit is not likely to get a theatrical release. But Moss promised that “It will be available on the small screen.”

I briefly attended the Closing Night Party at the Mezzanine. It was okay.

Visiting North Korea and Afghanistan: Wednesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I’ve really come to hate the upstairs theaters at the New Mission. The number of decent seats are in the single digits–and for the festival, most of them are reserved. The front row is so close it can induce headaches–even for me. If you don’t want to sit that close, and you weren’t one of the first people in the theater, you have to sit way to the side and watch the screen at an extreme angle.

I saw two San Francisco International Film Festival movies Wednesday, both in upstairs theaters.

B+ Under the Sun

Associate Programmer Audrey Chang introduced the film. She explained that the North Korean government commissioned this documentary, intended to present the wonderful life of a “typical” family, complete with two adorable daughters. But the government didn’t have control over the editing, and was not happy with the final result.

The Ukrainian director, Vitaly Mansky, was not able to attend. There was no Q&A.

Under the Sun is on the Festival’s Hold Review list, which means that I must review it in 100 words or less. Here goes:

Of course the people of Pyongyang look happy and prosperous. The government controlled what the filmmakers could shoot and told the subjects what to say and how to say it. But once out of North Korea and into the editing room, Director Vitaly Mansky shows the fakery. He left in footage that shows how everything was staged. We see the government handler reminding people to smile broader. We see multiple takes–with people spouting increasingly higher made-up statistics. He changes people’s careers. But he makes the point too many times; the film could have been 15 minutes shorter.

It will screen again Thursday at the Pacific Film Archive, 6:30. There’s also a good chance that it will get a theatrical release.

B- Neither Heaven nor Earth

Another Hold Review film that I have to review in 100 words or less:

This war movie follows a small group of French soldiers trying to hold onto a piece of Afghanistan. They have a difficult, mutually suspicious relationship with the locals. But things get jumpy when two men disappear without clues or explanation. Then others disappear. The disappearances seem impossible, and particularly bother the commanding officer, who insists on bringing his soldiers back dead or alive. The action sequences are suspenseful and well-made. Some of the French characters are fleshed out (but not the Afghans). And the disappearance mystery is a real puzzle. But the ending is a complete fail.

There were no filmmakers available for Q&A, which was too bad, because the whole audience wanted to ask one very big question.

I saw the last screening at the festival, but it may get an American theatrical release.

Salt Flats and Music: Tuesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two films, both documentaries, at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Tuesday. One was about the world coming to a previously isolated stretch of Bolivia. The other was about music of the world.

B+ Salero

Before the screening, Director Mike Plunkett told us that the film was “a passion project of mine. It took six years to complete.”

This exceptionally beautiful documentary looks at change from the point of view of someone who doesn’t want it, although the film itself seems neutral on the subject. Moises Chambi Yucra lives in the small town of Colchani , next to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. A husband and father, he’s harvested salt all of his life. He cannot imagine another life for himself or his family.

But Lithium has been found in massive amounts in the area–enough to make Bolivia a significantly richer country. What’s more, the government is taking steps to bring tourism to Colchani. Moises life can no longer go on as it was.

Plunkett feels considerable empathy for Moises, but he also shows the considerable advantages that come from the changes–advantages that appear to be helping the people who live there. The film contains some of the most mouth-watering images seen at this year’s festival.

Plunkett did a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after it started, but I caught this comment:

“I was really just struck by the landscape. If the landscape could have a voice, it would say something.”

I saw Salero at the Roxie. It was the last screening of the film at the festival. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to get a theatrical release.

A- The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Before the screening, director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) told us that he was delighted to be in the New Mission‘s Theater 1. “I think I saw Nightmare on Elm Street 3 here.”

Since this film will get a theatrical release, I can only give a very short review here:

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma took his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created the Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them. This documentary follows Ma and other musicians as they work, play, and talk about their lives. Many came from repressive regimes and war-torn lands, and their stories are often tragic. But the beauty of making music keeps them going. The film’s one problem: Not enough music.

After the screening, Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights:

  • How the project began: It’s one of those instances of jumping off a cliff. Yo-Yo called and wanted to talk about filming a concert. He started telling off-color jokes. I said “I’ll follow you with a camera everywhere.”
  • What role does culture serve in society? In the West, we tend to take culture for granted. It’s discounted because it’s a soft influence.
  • We started talking to Yo-Yo. Then we started talking to the ensemble, and we saw how much material there was.
  • On the film’s visual style, which involved a lot of moving, swooping camerawork: Early on, we decided the camera should float amongst these cultures.
  • Advice for new filmmakers: Get good sound. It’s the most overlooked thing in film. If you have great sound you can make a great film.
  • It’s become so much easier to make films because of the technology.

The film will screen once more for the Festival, Thursday, 4:00 at the Pacific Film Archive. But don’t worry if you miss it. It will open in Bay Area theaters June 17.


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