by Michael Fox
Sometimes a movie is just a movie, to appropriate the one-liner apocryphally attributed to Sigmund Freud. (“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” actually sounds to my ears more like something another Jewish intellectual, Groucho Marx, would have said. But I digress.) As far as the typical filmgoer is concerned, movies are stories, diversions, entertainment and, on rare and special occasions, art. But for a great swath of movies, even some produced by Hollywood studios (credo: “Profits first, last and always”), palpable moral consciousness is as central as the plot. To those of us who esteem cinema as a social good, those films are often the most exciting and profound.
It’s fair to say that the programmers of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, beginning Thursday, July 24 and continuing at venues around the Bay Area through August 10, share that attitude. From the probing documentaries that open ( The Green Prince ) and close ( Little White Lie ) the program, to the questioning dramas (and dramedies) from around the globe, to Freedom of Expression Award-winner Theodore Bikel, the 34th edition of the SFJFF comprises an exceptionally high-quality, multifaceted and multilingual symposium on the implications and responsibilities of being Jewish at this point in the 21st century.
Moviegoers who aren’t Jewish—a majority of the population, I’m told—and are interested in good films should be advised that the SFJFF and New York Jewish Film Festival (in January) are the prime destinations for many films at the beginning of their U.S. festival and exhibition lives. In other words, the SFJFF isn’t showing (tasty) leftovers that have been around the shop for a while but new work.
An obvious, perhaps even predictable, place to begin to explore is the quartet of local documentaries in the lineup. It’s a little hyperbolic to describe the ever-expanding ranks of Bay Area independent documentary filmmakers as the conscience of America, but who has better claim to the title? At the same time, if I cite social-justice activism as one of the more admirable traits and traditions of American Jews, who exemplifies that better than social-issue filmmakers?
Attorney-turned-director Abby Ginzberg’s latest galvanizing portrait of a legal beagle-slash-human rights activist, Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa, is easily her most ambitious and strongest work to date. The feature-length doc, with testimony from heavy hitters Archbishop Desmond Tutu, author Nadine Gordimer and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, foregrounds a humble man who played a crucial supporting role from adolescence in the fight against apartheid. Sachs helped draft the Freedom Charter in 1955 and defended political prisoners before opting to live in exile; in 1988 in neighboring Mozambique he survived a car bomb placed by South Africa’s intelligence agency. (By all means think of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, murdered with James Chaney in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan exactly 50 years ago this summer.) Sachs emerges as a quietly inspirational figure whose heroism and impact derive—first, last and always—from his integrity.
The subject of Nancy Kates’ fascinating, multilayered doc, Regarding Susan Sontag, likewise had a multitude of admirers as well as powerful detractors, but she’s a good deal harder than Sachs to nail down. A New York intellectual (by way of an L.A. upbringing) of the first order, Sontag embraced and deflected controversy as it suited her. She cast herself as a beacon of candid self-revelation and unblinking self-analysis, but was a moving target when it came to publicly addressing her own sexuality. Screening shortly after its local premiere in Frameline and well ahead of its HBO cablecast (in December, probably, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the author’s death), Regarding Susan Sontag can be seen in the SFJFF context as a parable about the freedom of 20th Century American Jews to invent, define, reinvent and redefine themselves.
San Francisco teenager Mica Jarmel-Schneider combines Sachs’ deeply ingrained sense of fair play with Sontag’s impatience with the national epidemic of complacency. In Havana Curveball , the mop-top lad takes the contemporary Jewish tradition of adopting a cause or charity as part of the bar / bat mitzvah process—in his case, collecting donated baseball gear for underprivileged Cuban kids—90 miles further than most (young) people could be bothered to go. (Mica goes to far greater lengths than 90 miles, actually, because Americans can’t fly directly to the all-threatening Commie country.) His filmmaker parents, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, masterfully introduce and intertwine the story’s threads at the outset, and their savvy decision to have Micah narrate and drive the film (even if somewhat illusory) makes the one-hour Havana Curveball (one of the festival’s world premieres) uniquely engaging for younger viewers.
Of course, everyone doesn’t have access to cameras, and the capability to tell their own story. One of the initiatives of an organization called B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, is supplying Palestinian women on the West Bank with video cameras and training to record abuses and mistreatment by Israeli soldiers, police and settlers. Judith Montell and Emmy Scharlatt’s In the Image (the literal translation of b’tselem is “in the image of”) contains some of that footage, and they must be among the most shocking images in the entire festival. That said, some of these appalling sequences date from 2008, which doesn’t diminish their power but did make me question this brand new documentary’s value as a work of journalism. Until, that is, the current spate of violence reminded me that it’s rather unlikely that the conditions for Palestinians improved in the last six years.
That’s the trouble with current events: They alter the lens through which we see a film, and the director is helpless to “rescind” the new context. Peter Cohn’s Holy Land, another world premiere, somehow manages to be immune from this affliction. The doc hopscotches among a cross-section of Arab and Jewish residents of the West Bank over four seasons, and while it is inevitably political—because its subjects are—the piece avoids the cloying aura of an agenda film. By stepping into the stream of life for an extended period, and emerging with a kind of mosaic, Holy Land evokes the fluidity and dynamism of the situation rather than a “summing up.”
The opening night film, The Green Prince, doesn’t fare as well for the simple reason that its decisive, hopeful thesis is under fire at the moment. Based on Mosab Hassan Yousef’s memoir, Son of Hamas, Nadav Schirman’s tension-fueled documentary relives the tense decade that Yousef supplied information to the Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic security service) while working for his father, a Hamas leader. Replete with real-life echoes of Omar and Bethlehem, two recent narratives about handlers and informants, The Green Prince delivers a capper of Palestinian-Israeli friendship in lieu of the expected unhappy ending. In the current climate, alas, the film plays more like a fairy tale than a saga of hard-won trust and loyalty.
An impeccably crafted adventure saga that may one day find itself in eternal rotation on the History Channel or the Military Channel—although it’s more soulful, irreverent and bawdy than their typical offerings—Above and Beyond makes daring and aggressive use of reenactments to depict the battle for the country’s survival during the 1948 War of Independence. Among their accomplishments, filmmakers Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg include (albeit briefly) the perspective of displaced Palestinians—their term for this period is al-Nakba, or “the Catastrophe”—in what is a commemoration of bravery, resourcefulness and post-Holocaust Jewish identity.
The Holocaust, now that we’ve raised its specter, brutally and prematurely brought the Golden Age of Yiddish culture to an end. The beloved singer and actor Theodore Bikel, who recently turned 90, is one of the few remaining bridges to the shtetl, the Old Country, the Yiddish language and melodies. Bikel is feted with the festival’s annual Freedom of Expression Award, joining such notable prior recipients as the blacklisted screenwriters Walter Bernstein and Norma Barzman, Arab-Israeli author and satirist Sayed Kashua, narrative filmmaker Amos Gitai and documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner, actor-producer Kirk Douglas and actor Elliot Gould. The program includes a short performance by the legend himself plus Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem , a documentary that stages and records several songs from the troubadour’s play, Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears , for posterity.
It’s a great relief to report that the Holocaust is far from the primary theme of the 2014 SFJFF, which does an outstanding job of focusing on the present without dismissing the past. But World War II is the setting for the high-profile historical drama of note, Run Boy Run, Pepe Danquart’s true story of a Jewish boy’s odyssey through rural Poland. Our intrepid, pint-size hero/mascot must rely on the kindness of strangers, typically attained by passing himself off as gentile. Identity is at the very heart of this moving survival story, playing in the Centerpiece Narrative slot, which places its climax at the moment in 1945 when the young lad must make a life-altering choice.
Run Boy Run is one of several winning narrative films in the festival; the ratio of fiction to nonfiction is more balanced than I’ve conveyed in this doc-heavy overview, needless to say. The niftily constructed, female Israeli military/office comedy Zero Motivation succeeds in being both droll and viciously funny, and to prick the bubbles of casual misogyny and sisterly rivalry. The unpredictable yet often poignant road movie Magic Men imagines an estranged Israeli father and his adult son grappling with rapprochement along the picturesque Greek coast.
Sacrifice, guilt, moral dilemmas, tradition, obligation, declaration, celebration—as you surmised and probably expected, the gang’s all here at the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Bring your conscience, and maybe a cigar.
Michael Fox is a longtime film critic, journalist and teacher. He also curates and hosts the Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics Institute in downtown San Francisco.