By Gary Meyer
One of the challenges for any film festival is finding the perfect opening night movie.
A curator wants a terrific movie first but also it must be a crowd pleaser— Not too experimental or heavily political. You don’t want to alienate the opening night audience who may not be as adventurous as those attending many other movies during the event. They need to leave the theater in a good mood and hopefully want to return for more shows. But you want it to be a movie that also means something to people and leaves them thinking as well as entertained.
The mood was set with a series of clever festival trailers from past years and the unveiling of this year’s that asks “What makes a film Jewish?” produced by local filmmakers group Where The Buffalo Roam.
The 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, screening around the Bay Area through August 4, has found a hit. FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES delivered to the first-nighters at the only Festival showing though the movie opens in theaters on August 23.
Director Max Lewkowicz explores how the world of Tevye and his village of Anatevka, first made famous in the writings of Sholem Aleichem, came to be an unexpected smash Broadway musical that is performed somewhere in the world every day. We learn the history of the show’s development, that early pre-Broadway reviews were terrible, the elimination and creation of songs and story with insight into the working relationships of the creative team, director Jerome Robbins, writer Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock,,,,and their often difficult star Zero Mostel. There were tensions on the project but everyone came together to create a miracle. Vintage and contemporary footage intercut with interviews including Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince (producer), Lin-Manuel Miranda, Itzhak Perlman, Harvey Fierstein and some original cast members shed light on the meaning of the show to so many people.
Director Bartlett Sher and some of his cast from the 2016 Broadway revival offer especially insightful commentary about Tevye’s daughters wanting to break tradition to become independent and how contemporary productions can emphasize a more feminist approach. Joel Grey speaks about directing the current Broadway production in Yiddish with his Tevye, Steven Skybell which puts a new twist on the show. We know the tunes so when we hear them in Yiddish the English words are in our heads though they do have supertitles of everything translated into English at the theater.
Some of the film’s biggest surprises come from seeing excerpts from productions of FIDDLER in Thailand and in Japan where the performers think it is such a Japanese story that they aren’t sure people elsewhere would understand what it is about. A production by a largely African-American teenage cast defied expectations. And what happened at Lin-Manuel’s wedding will have you smiling.
Beautiful animation by Tess Martin is used to set very special moods in appropriate places. The songs have meaning to so many of us that the audience members often share a few tears, some joy and want to break into song.
Director Norman Jewison and star Topol tell entertaining stories about making the movie version which was considered a risky project despite the stage success. It too became a smash success. Interesting for me was that seeing clips from the film reminded me how much more powerful I think the show is live. And it also reminded Cathy and me about the first time we saw it. We were on our 53-week “honeymoon” van camping across Europe. FIDDLER had just opened in Madrid so we decided to go to the exclusive Roadshow engagement. The dialogue was dubbed into Spanish and the songs were in English with subtitles. And there was a hilarious, for us, cross-cultural moment when someone in the film says, “Ay caramba! Tevye.”
Following an excellent Q&A (Lincoln Spector reports on the highlights at Bayflicks), the opening night party at the Contemporary Jewish Film Festival was one of the best. With plenty of space to meet people while sampling food from numerous restaurants and caterers, it never felt packed. Anita Jaffe and Leftwich Event Specialist have been organizing the food and use of space for several years and have gotten it right. They must be applauded not only for the variety and deliciousness but for making sure the offerings were plentiful. Too often at such events the food is gone before everyone arrives, especially when there is a post-film Q&A and half the audience rushes to the party.
You could compare two very different and excellent chopped chicken liver recipes from Wise Sons or Saul’s Deli. Of many the tasty hummus offerings my favorite was Mica’s huge bowl from Pomella, the soon-to-open successor to Oakland’s much loved Ba-Bite. From deli sandwiches to salmon sushi, salads and quiche or Mac ‘n Cheese deep fried rolls to Empanadas and platters of Mediterranean goodies, one could eat too much but hopefully saved room for the many desserts, especially those from Fairytale Brownies and the Frozen Kustard bars. Other film festivals could learn from this stellar event. (See complete of those who provided food at the end of this article.)
Speaking of food, what would a Jewish Film Festival be without food films?
ABE is a drama with comedy about a New York teenager (Noah Schnapp of Stranger Things) who is curious about his mixed Palestinian-Israeli family ‘s culinary heritage. The film celebrates the ability of multicultural foods bringing people together despite their differences. At Abraham’s 12th birthday party he escapes as the relatives argue over what is best for him, especially his love for cooking. Visiting a street fair he meets a Brazilian chef who believes “mixing flavors can bring people together” which he practices by blending a fusion of South American, Jamaican and New York tastes. Abe gets Chico to hire him but must convince his boss to let him cook rather than wash dishes. When this happens he is taught how to combine flavors with delicious results while learning the workings of a professional kitchen. The screening on Sunday, July 28 will be followed by a feast at Zaytoon in Albany.
It might be asked “Why is SEDER-MASOCHISM different from all other Passover movies?” It is irreverent, has stunning animation and a mixture of music like you’ve never heard in one film from Louis Armstrong (Go Down Moses) to Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive) to Pointer Sisters (You Gotta Believe) with Led Zeppelin and Guns’n’Roses plus Broadway show tunes for starters. Nina Paley (SITA SINGS THE BLUES) wrote, directed, animated, sings—you name it with this personal passion project asking why Passover is male-dominated and her telling of the Book of Exodus is refreshingly blasphemous. The animation is stunning with the parting of the Red Sea turned into a Busby Berkeley-style musical and the Ten Plagues accompanied by 78-rpm blues, hip-hop, punk, 1970s pop rock, Oingo Boingo, and the Beatles. At only 78 minutes it can feel a bit long and disjointed at times but new visual wonders will pick things up momentarily.
The short playing before it is worth the trip alone as GEFILTE documents a Detroit family whose Passover dinner gets bigger each year to the point where they added another room to hold the crowd that grew to 120 guests. In both moving and hilarious moments we hear from the family members what the really think of the taste, texture and smell of Gefilte Fish while bringing up questions of Jewish survival, identity and continuity. Director Rachel Fleit asked Chef Yehuda Sichel of Philadelphia’s Abe Fisher restaurant—owned by Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov—to contribute a modern take on the historic gefilte fish recipe on her blog Nowness.
The Festival has many works that are clearly Jewish in theme—some are asking questions and searching for answers while others just want to entertain us. A good festival offers a variety of moods.
Following up on the question above you might ask “Why is this film different from all other films?”. The answer for AMERICAN FACTORY? It has nothing to do with Judaism but everything to do with the Festival’s commitment to Social Justice and filmmakers repairing the world as part of the Sixth annual “Take Action Day” on Monday, July 22 at the Castro. The Festival directors write “Today’s national conversation and political moment has inspired a powerful revolution of filmmakers applying their trade to the moment’s most pressing issues. Environmentalism, corporate accountability, scientific creativity, legal injustice and online privacy are just some of the pressing issues raised in these buzzed-about docs.”
AMERICAN FACTORY documents what happened when a Chinese billionaire opened a new factory to make auto glass in Dayton, Ohio. The city had been devastated when General Motors closed their truck assembly line plant and this new project was hopefully going to help save the town and offer employment to many. Things went fairly well at first. There was skepticism about the Chinese workers brought to supplement the locals but a sincere attempt to help them understand each other’s cultural differences is often humorous and certainly informative. The owner of the business allowed full access to master filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. He believed what he was doing was being a savior but things started to turn bad as both wages and safety standards were lowered, resulting in low productivity and talk of forming a union. This is something the Chinese management wanted to fight and start planning for automation that would mean the loss of jobs.
The cameras kept rolling and we are in a state of disbelief at what we are seeing as the Chinese management can’t imagine they are doing anything that might embarrass them. This movie gets my highest recommendation.
The entire day’s line-up should energize audiences to become involved in causes they care about. I look forward to seeing COOKED: Survival by Zip Code as part of the much-deserved “Freedom of Expression Award” to Judith Helfland.
(For films I have not yet seen but hope to see I will use excerpts from the Festival program book in quotation marks with attribution to the author.)
THE RABBI GOES WEST looks at another small town with surprises. “One can encounter a Chabad rabbi almost anywhere as this branch of Orthodox Judaism has opened centers in over 100 countries around the world touching every continent other than Antarctica. However, it is still rare to encounter one on horseback or at the shooting range. Chaim Bruk and his wife, Chavie, have made it their goal to adapt to their new home of Montana and embrace its particular form of the American Dream. While some of their co-religionists welcome their arrival, several leaders in Montana’s small Jewish community are disquieted by some of Chaim’s actions, which they decry as opportunistic and missionary in nature. They are also challenged by his Bible-based religious philosophy as well as the Chabad practice of limiting the role of women as spiritual leaders. At the same time, Chaim and Chavie clearly have forged connections with Jews who haven’t felt welcome in other congregational environments. The directors set out to ask the question of whether or not people from diverse walks of life can engage with an open heart with those who seem their political and religious polar opposites? Meet the Bruks and decide for yourself.” – Mark Valentine
Amy Geller and Gerald Peary, who will be at the Albany screening of RABBI previously made FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES, the story of American film criticism which set the stage for WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL about the film critic who possibly had the most impact on creating a film culture in the 1960s-1980s where people discussed movies as both art and entertainment. Pauline grew up in Petaluma as part of a Jewish chicken farmer family but she escaped to Berkeley where her reviews on KPFA started her career. She programmed the Cinema Studio-Guild twin cinemas on Telegraph in Berkeley, writing literate program notes that later often appeared as capsules in The New Yorker and in her books. The film follows her journey east and how her refusal to compromise cost her writing positions before settling at The New Yorker. I have read her since I was a teenager and often take one of her books from the shelf to read a few reviews or essays.
Film critic as celebrity became an increasing reality when Siskel, Ebert, Sarris, Haskell, Crist, etc. developed national followings and I credit that largely to Kael for starting a national conversation about the movies. She inspired people to say, “I don’t agree with Pauline but she makes me think about what I am seeing and consider movies in a new light.” Her writing was wonderful to read and no doubt brought a while new generation to The New Yorker magazine as Kael’s opinions became the water cooler center of conversation for so many of us. People would see a movie more than once to compare her thoughts with their own.
We live in a different world where film critics no longer exist as personalities. Too often they are just another Tomato to be opened for a 30 second glance to get the essence of the review. Even though there are many excellent critics, some interviewed in this film, there is just a different culture today that is dominated by the Internet where anybody thinks they can be a critic.
If you want to help with clearances and other things that must be done to allow the film to be distributed beyond film festivals you can join the crowd-funding campaign that closes Monday, July 22.
There are a large number of movies about the movies this year.
CURTIZ is not a documentary about Michael Curtiz, who “directed some of the most well-known films of the 20th century. The Hungarian native, perhaps the most underrated figure in Hollywood history, directed nearly 200 films in his lifetime. In this noir-ish dramatization of the making of his most famous film, Casablanca, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director, Curtiz is shown as a man in quiet turmoil. As he was filming-in a real-life story that parallels that of the movie-Curtiz was struggling to save relatives caught up in the Nazi dragnet of Jews. Bergman, Bogart, Conrad Veidt and crackerjack dialogue writers the Epstein brothers come across as consummate professionals. But every story conference, every plot point, was plagued with conflict and disagreement. The Tinseltown bigwigs (with the exception of Curtiz’s friend Hal Wallis) are shown as a gaggle of simpletons who made good movies in spite of themselves, thanks to people like Curtiz who deflected their inane story ideas. Ultimately Curtiz succeeded in getting his mother to the U.S. However, he could not rescue his sister, her husband or their three children, who were sent to Auschwitz. All that personal agony went into the making of Casablanca, imbuing the film with the bittersweet quality that, in World War II, characterized even a victory. “ – Miguel Pendás
BEYOND THE BOLEX –“What you could do with a Bolex camera seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was hand-powered, could be loaded in daylight, was compact and made with the finest craftmanship and materials. It could be used for frame-by-frame animation and accepted a wide variety of lenses. And this marvel of accessible filmmaking was first registered in 1924. The visionary inventor behind the camera that did everything was Jacques Bolsey, born Yakov Bogopolsky in 1895 into a Jewish family in Kiev. His great-granddaughter Alyssa Bolsey has devoted herself to recounting the adventure of Bolsey’s life, a microcosm of the Jewish experience in the mid-20th century. As Nazi armies marched across Europe in 1939, Bolsey, a citizen of no country, fled to the United States, where his inventions for the American war effort eventually earned him citizenship. In Jacques’s diaries Alyssa Bolsey unearthed a family story of tragedy during the war, but Bolsey’s story is also one of hope for others empowered by his invention. Barbara Hammer, David Lynch, Jonas Mekas, Terry Gilliam, Will Vinton, Maya Deren, and Spike Lee all began their careers shooting on Bolex cameras. As Wim Wenders puts it, the Bolex was “the ideal tool to learn the craft of filmmaking.” A tool to fulfill the dreams of future cineastes. -Miguel Pendás
CARL LAEMMLE “is the extraordinary story of the German-Jewish immigrant who practically invented the modern motion picture business. Investing in nickelodeons, Carl Laemmle fought and ultimately overcame Thomas Edison’s attempts to monopolize the film industry. Creating Universal Pictures in 1912, Laemmle hired many talents who would go on to become Hollywood legends, including Walt Disney, John Ford, William Wyler and Irving Thalberg. He also hired many women directors and made Lois Weber the highest paid director on his lot. Under Laemmle’s leadership, Universal became known for such classic monster movies as The Phantom of the Opera,Frankenstein, Dracula and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He won the studio its first Oscar with the film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Even though the film told the story of World War I from Germany’s point of view, Adolf Hitler banned the film due to its peaceful message. When he sold Universal in 1936, Laemmle would go on to do something far more important than any movie or studio he had created: battling the Third Reich and a notoriously anti-Semitic U.S. State Department, he rescued more than 300 Jewish refugee families from the Holocaust.” – Sara L. Rubin
LOVE, ANTOSHA “When Anton Yelchin died tragically in a freak accident at the age of 27, all Hollywood was shocked. This documentary offers an intimate look into the infinitely creative mind of the young actor (Star Trek, Green Room, Like Crazy) and why he was so beloved by his peers. Yelchin was a Russian Jew who immigrated to America with his parents as an infant. They left their lives as professional figure skaters to escape anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Without knowing a word of English, the family planted their roots in the San Fernando Valley, where Yelchin’s creativity flourished. Though he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness from a young age, he never let it affect his work. Filmmaker Garret Price paints a fascinating picture of a zealous child whose passion for the world of film served as an escape from his reality. Throughout his lifetime, the actor maintained an intense dedication to his craft. He aimed to push boundaries in every role by showcasing a heart-warming level of vulnerability and self-reflection. This ethos inspired fellow actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Chris Pine, Jodie Foster and many more, who recount Yelchin’s powerful impact on their lives. This coming-of-age story presents an intoxicatingly raw portrayal of Yelchin’s captivating journey. “ – Has Alexandra
“You might not know the name of French photographer Henri Dauman but you definitely know the iconic pictures he’s taken. The self-taught perfectionist captured thousands of images of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol and perhaps, most famously, the black-veiled Jackie Kennedy as she made her way up Pennsylvania Avenue in JFK’s 1963 funeral procession. When Elvis Presley was discharged from the US Army in 1960, Dauman was so close you can even see the intrepid lensman, camera in hand, in newsreels of the rocker’s return. Yet behind the dazzling success of four decades as a Life magazine photojournalist was a childhood haunted by tragedy. Dauman’s Jewish father perished in Auschwitz. During the Nazi occupation, his mother managed to keep her young son alive by hiding him in a rural French town. But after the war’s end, she died after accidentally ingesting poisoned bicarbonate purchased on the black market. Barely out of his teens, Dauman made his way to New York where he established himself as a leading photographer for millions of Life’s weekly readers. This chronicle threads two fascinating journeys of the picture artist: an intimate look at Dauman’s creative path and an emotional trip back to find the French country home where he nearly died in a hail of German bullets.” – Thomas Logoreci
“Modern jazz was born at Blue Note records when greats like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Art Blakey recorded on the label in its breakthrough years. This was not due to the power of a big commercial label to attract the best talent. It was the result of the love for the music of two German Jewish refugees, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. “They changed the face of music completely,” affirms famed saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Lion and Wolff were friends in 1930s Berlin with a shared passion for jazz. Nazi rule drove them to the United States, where it didn’t take them long to see that the discrimination against Blacks in the US was uncomfortably similar to what they had faced as Jews back home. They started the company on a shoestring, never taking a dime from record sales, just reinvesting in the company. Both worked day jobs to make ends meet, but they were living a dream. Over time the immigrant jazz lovers won the respect of musicians not just for their support, but for their musical judgment. This documentary’s soundtrack of classic Blue Note bebop and cool jazz and the visuals, enhanced with amazing animation, stunning archival footage and legendary Blue Note cover art, are unforgettable.” – Miguel Pendás
MAMBONIKS ” ‘Tito Puente played at my wedding,” says ‘Mambo Judie,’ with obvious pride. She is one of the mamboniks, the aging but ever upbeat Jewish aficionados of the Cuban dance craze of the 1950s. Judging by this affectionate documentary, they haven’t lost their bounce as they talk about the effect the sexy Latin dance had on their youth. Cuban dance achieved worldwide popularity in the 1930s and ’40s with the rumba. After World War II Latin bands playing the mambo became wildly popular, with performers like Pérez Prado, Machito and his Afro Cubans, Celia Cruz and the New York-born Puerto Rican timbalero Tito Puente. The great Cuban musicians toured the United States, and Americans went to Havana to enjoy daiquiris and baile at clubs like the famous Tropicana. Director Lex Gillespie takes his camera to Miami Beach, the Catskills and Havana where one of the mamboniks gives a tour of the places in the Cuban capital that he used to frequent back in the day. In New York the epicenter of mambo was the Palladium at 53rd and Broadway. Jews, Blacks and Puerto Ricans mixed happily there in an era when de facto segregation was the rule, even in New York. “If you knew how to dance, you were accepted,” recalls another mambonik. Latin music was ubiquitous at bar and bat-mitzvahs and weddings and ruled at summer resorts in the Catskills. Latin music “appeals to the Jewish soul” explains one of the mamboniks, and such was its popularity that Jewish performers who played the music even began adopting Latin names. The Mamboniks shows this affinity as it really is: a heartfelt, profound and joyous kinship with another culture.” -Miguel Péndas
song and dance
Saturday, July 27 | preceding the Castro screening of The Mamboniks will be a live performance of mambo inspired music by Club Havana 1950
Club Havana 1950 led by Sascha Jacobsen represents the authentic sound of classic Cuban mambo from the golden age of Cuba’s music scene. With a mix of the best Cuban, American, and Jewish musicians in the Bay area, it will be impossible to remain seated during this fiery set.
THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY is about a successful Las Vegas and internationally known comedy magician. Faced with a terminal illness he agreed to let filmmaker Ben Berman make a movie about his life and his future. Jonathan is a challenging subject but Berman had no idea the twists that would occur as he continued the project and I will not spoil it for you so you can get a sense of what it must have felt like as each new revelation appeared. The film is both funny and disturbing as we are forced to question what is real or illusion—and especially intriguing concept when your subject is a magician whose job is performing illusions.
There is so much more to see at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I have largely concentrated on food and entertainment and EatDrinkFilms is pleased to co-present many of the films discussed.
I urge you to go to the website or pick up a program guide around town and plan your own festival of good movies.
It is a miztvah you owe yourself.
Photos from the Festival are posted regularly on Flickr. You might be there.
OPENING NIGHT FOOD AND BEVERAGE PROVIDERS
- Bitchin’ Baklava
- Cinderella Bakery and Café
- Doll’s Kitchen
- El Porteno
- Fairytale Brownies
- Frena Bakery
- Frozen Kuhsterd
- Grand Bakery
- L’Chaim Foods
- La Mediterranee
- Melons Catering & Events
- Oren’s Hummus
- Quiche & Carry
- Salty Sweet
- Saul’s Deli
- Taste Catering
- Wise Sons
- Z. Cioccolato Fudge
Drinks were provided by: Lagunitas, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and Hagafen Cellars.
Most events could not happen without the generous financial and in-kind support of sponsors. If you want to thank them should you visit their places of business, here is a list helping the SFJFF.