To Change the World: Highlights of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

by Emily S. Mendel

The 35th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (JFF), the first and still the largest of its kind, returns to the San Francisco Bay Area July 23-August 9, 2015 with 70 offerings from 17 countries as diverse as Uruguay, Latvia, and Sweden. Fifty-five feature films will be shown (38 documentaries and 17 narratives), plus 15 shorts.

SFJFFlogoFilms worthy of inclusion in the JFF are those that inspire understanding of Jewish life through film and that embody the Jewish concept of tikkun olam—to change or repair the world. Screenings take place in San Francisco (Castro Theatre), Berkeley (California Theatre), Oakland (Lakeside Theatre at the Kaiser Center), Palo Alto (Cinearts) and San Rafael (the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center). Don’t miss the festivities, special discussion programs and Q&As with filmmakers and international guests.

Lee Grant directing Tell Me a Riddle. Credit: cbsnews.com.

Lee Grant directing Tell Me a Riddle. Credit: cbsnews.com.

This year’s festival honors American stage, film and television actress and film director Lee Grant with the 2015 Freedom of Expression Award. Just as she was becoming an international star, winning the Best Actress Award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Detective Story (1951), Grant (née Lyova Haskell Rosenthal) was labelled a Communist subversive by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her career suffered until the 1960s, when she won an Emmy Award for her work in TV’s Peyton Place. Many other television roles and films followed, including Warren Beatty’s Shampoo (1975), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. One of the few women of her generation who transitioned from acting to directing, Grant has directed over 20 films, most for television. In 1980, she directed her first film, Tell Me a Riddle, based on a Tillie Olsen love story about an aging Jewish couple, which will be shown at the festival.

I viewed the following JFF films:

Josh Kornbluth in Love & Taxes.

Josh Kornbluth in Love & Taxes.

Love & Taxes

Josh Kornbluth, well-known Bay Area stage and film monologist for Haiku Tunnel and Red Diaper Baby, stars in this funny flick in which he learns to stop worrying and love paying taxes. A lighthearted and lightweight entertainment in which the Yiddish definition of pisher becomes a minor plot-point. Great cameo by Robert Reich. A world premiere.

GoGoBoysPosterThe Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films

This is an engaging documentary about two Israeli cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who started and ultimately lost a hugely successful low-budget movie studio. Their big moneymakers in the 1980s were the Death Wish sequels and Chuck Norris action pictures such as The Delta Force and Invasion U.S.A., yet they also made more serious pictures such as Zeffirelli’s Otello (a film version of the Verdi opera), Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, John Cassavetes’ Love Streams and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train. An Israeli film with English subtitles, The Go-Go Boys resurrects their halcyon days of glory and relates the melancholy demise of their careers and friendship.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, flanked by muses.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, flanked by muses.

The Muses of Bashevis Singer

Although titularly it’s about Singer’s many woman translators, this absorbing documentary’s essence comes from the great, prolific Yiddish writer Isaac Singer (1902-1991). Since Singer wrote in Yiddish, his many young women translators acted as collaborators, sometimes engaging in more personal relationships in the process of helping him put his prose into colloquial English. This Israeli documentary, in English, Yiddish and other languages with English subtitles, is slow-paced, but fascinating in its own way.

Image from Dealing with the Devil. Credit: Courtesy of sfjff.org.

Image from Dealing with the Devil. Credit: Courtesy of sfjff.org.

Dealing with the Devil

One of the world premieres at the festival is this taut French documentary, directed by Stéphane Bentura. It explores the life of Hildebrand Gurlitt, father of a man whose Hamburg home was recently found to contain hundreds of works of art looted by the Nazis. Although of Jewish descent, the senior Gurlitt stole, seized and swindled “degenerate” art from Jews and Jewish art dealers without compunction. Careful research has uncovered how the French auction houses were complicit in these dehumanizing deeds. It’s a riveting film.

Peggy Guggenheim at her palazzo, peeking through an elaborate wrought iron fence, with glass figures designed by Picasso. Credit: David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Peggy Guggenheim at her palazzo, peeking through an elaborate wrought iron fence, with glass figures designed by Picasso. Credit: David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

The Oakland Opening Night selection, directed by Lisa Vreeland, is another fascinating documentary about art. Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) introduced Kandinsky, Cocteau, Dali, Nevelson, Motherwell, Pollock and others to the art world. They relied on her for support and promotion, and for gallery exhibitions in Paris, London and New York. She was born into a rich New York Jewish family as the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim, who went down with the Titanic, and the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, who later founded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Museum. The film uses recently discovered audio interviews with Ms. Guggenheim as a vehicle to explore her relationship with her family (cold), her many famous lovers (hot), and 20th century art (profound). Her avant-garde conduct was considered scandalous, yet she fulfilled her destiny as an early liberated woman. The enlightening film includes many illustrations of her famous art collection, and indeed chronicles 20th century European and American art.

Still from My Shortest Love Affair. Credit: Courtesy of sfjff.org.

Still from My Shortest Love Affair. Credit: Courtesy of sfjff.org.

My Shortest Love Affair

The Centerpiece Narrative is a French film with English subtitles, directed by Karin Albou (The Wedding Song), about two lovers who meet again after 20 years. They share one night of unromantic sex, during which the woman become pregnant. What follows are the couple’s vain attempts to make a life together as their sexual preferences interfere (he, the dirty talker; she, the silent romantic). Or perhaps the problems are actually deeper. I thought that I would enjoy this film more than I did, but it is not without a certain appeal.

Mr. Kaplan

TPrinthe 76-year old Mr. Kaplan (Héctor Noguera), after escaping from Poland during World War II, enjoys a generally happy life with his family in Uruguay. But when his faculties begin to falter and he loses his driver’s license, depression sets in. To assert his continuing value, he comes up with a ferkachte, fershlugina scheme to capture an old man that he believes to be a former Nazi officer. Mr. Kaplan is a heartfelt, sometimes humorous portrayal of a man on a quixotic quest for youth. He even has his own Sancho Panza. In Spanish with English subtitles.

It looks like a great year for the JFF. Tickets and passes are now on sale. All-Festival passes, discount cards and special prices for students and seniors are available. For ticket information, contact the box office at 415.621.0523 or www.sfjff.org.

Try the mobile app to help you keep track of the schedule. It can be downloaded from the website.

Horizontal RuleSAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

July 23-August 9, 2015. Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the CinéArts Theatre in Palo Alto, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, the California Theatre in Berkeley, and the Lakeside Theater in Oakland. (415) 621-0523. www.sfjff.org.

Read about Dough, which EDF is co-presenting, and Eat Your Way Through the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Horizontal RuleEmilyMendelEmily S. Mendel is a writer and photographer. As a native New Yorker (although now a longtime East Bay resident), Emily grew up exploring film and studying theater from Broadway to Off-Off-Broadway, as her mega-volume Playbill collection attests. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Emily more time to indulge in her love of the arts and travel. She reviews art, film, television and destinations as a regular contributor to culturevulture.net, reviews theater as a regular contributor to Berkeleyside, and reviews film as a contributor to EatDrinkFilms.

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