Tuesday, July 17, 2007

2007 SFJFF—Michael Hawley's Preview

Here in the Bay Area, March through July can feel like one long, extended film festival. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival leads into the San Francisco International Film Festival, which is followed by HoleHead, which comes before Frameline, which precedes the Silent Film Festival and I'm probably forgetting a half dozen or so mini-fests in between. By the time the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival ("SFJFF") rolls around, I'm grateful not only for its reliably excellent programming, but also for the three-month respite it signals before things start cooking again in mid-autumn with the Mill Valley, Arab, Latino and 3rd i festivals. The SFJFF—which is the oldest of its kind in the world—celebrates its 27th edition this year. I've had the chance to preview 14 of its selections—nine narrative features and five documentaries—all on screener DVDs except where noted.

My favorite of the bunch by far is Oliver Hirschbiegel's Just an Ordinary Jew. The festival catalogue description of the film—basically one man ranting in his apartment for 90 minutes—had me repeatedly pushing the DVD to the bottom of the pile. I was of course interested in seeing what the director of The Experiment and Downfall had been up to lately, but only to a point. Well, surprise, surprise … this film had me hooked from its first minute to its last. In an intensely engrossing performance, Ben Becker portrays a Hamburg journalist who is asked by a social studies teacher to speak about what it means to be a Jew in contemporary Germany. His caustic, deeply reflective reply, spoken into a portable cassette recorder while roaming the apartment, is what constitutes the entire film. The script is literate and wickedly sharp, and the film's visual style is interesting enough to sustain its singular setting. This is really one of the finest films I've seen this year. Here's one of my favorite lines chosen from dozens: "My father was convinced there was no God. My mother was more pessimistic."

The other German feature I previewed was Dani Levy's My Fuerher: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler. Levy—whose 2005 film Go For Zucker received a respectable US theatrical release—is being honored at this year's festival with the Freedom of Expression Award. His latest is an outrageous comic fable and the first German film that's dared to poke fun at the Third Reich. The premise is that it's near the end of the war and Hitler has lost his mojo. He's expected to deliver a rousing New Year's Day speech, so a famous Jewish actor (played by The Lives of Others Stasi agent Ulrich Mühe) is released from a concentration camp and given the job of helping the Fueher rekindle his furor. For five days brimming with revenge opportunities, he becomes Hitler's drama coach, psychoanalyst and personal trainer. I had pretty low expectations for this film, as it was savaged by critics after its Berlin Film Festival premiere earlier this year. It did, however, make me laugh out loud several times, which is more than I can say about most comedies I see in a given year. The film is sure to cause controversy as to the appropriateness of such a comic treatment. Levy sees this approach as just another way to try and "understand what we will never understand." Incidentally, as part of its tribute to Levy, the SFJFF will also screen the director's 1998 thriller, The Giraffe.

Each year the festival screens a number of documentaries from Israel and I've seen three of this year's selections. The first, Ido Haar's 9 Star Hotel, is my favorite of all the festival docs I've previewed. It's a deeply moving, verité look at a group of young, illegal Palestinian construction workers who risk arrest each day to support their families. Living in makeshift camps in the hills overlooking the settlement of Modi'in, they scramble down rocky slopes each morning, and then dodge cars to cross a busy highway. All the while they must maintain constant vigilance to avoid detection by the Israeli police and military, even while they sleep at night. Those images and others are certain to resonate with US viewers as we deal with our own issues of immigration and illegal workers. The film is given further weight when you realize it was shot in the months leading up to the completion of the separation wall, which will effectively eliminate even this clandestine form of livelihood. The film, which had a brief theatrical release in New York this spring, has been criticized for its lack of context and analysis. True, it's a purely observational work, without narration. We only know what we hear and observe through Haar's handheld camera. Still, I appreciated the purity of this approach, and am certain that some other filmmaker will come along to fill in the picture, if one hasn't done so already.

Another fine Israeli documentary is Shimon Dotan's Hot House, which is a fairly objective look at the 10,000 Palestinians doing time in Israeli prisons for participating in acts of terrorism (or national liberation, depending on which side of the bars you're on). Dotan appears to have had unlimited access during the filming, which happened to take place in the months leading up to the 2006 Palestinian elections. Incarcerated candidates for both the Fatah and Hamas political parties are amongst those interviewed. I found the interviews shot in the women's prison of particular interest. Most of them are there on charges of "aiding and transporting a suicide bomber." One chilling interview in particular—of a former TV news anchor who took part in a restaurant bombing—has really stuck with me. When told that eight children were killed in the bombing, she smiles and calmly replies, "Both sides shoot children."

Lighter in subject matter and sure to be a crowd pleaser is Shlomo Hazan's Film Fanatic, which profiles the artistic and personal trials of one Yehuda Grovais, known as the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Steven Spielberg. In a culture where television and cinemas are forbidden, a special exception has been made for personal computers. And if those computers just happen to have a DVD drive, well then, Grovais is merely its content provider. His films are awful, at least the few clips we get to see; stiff, moralistic action films with absolutely no women and Grovais as hero. When his once robust business dwindles, he's forced to telemarket his product and seek out institutional film funding, neither of which proves successful. One potential producer tries to convince him to make Iranian-style art films. Meanwhile, heat from the Haredi community elders makes life even more difficult. Salvation finally comes, as it does for a number of budding filmmakers world wide, in the form of a short that wins a 10,000 sheckel festival prize. Oddly, the festival is only screening this film in Berkeley and San Rafael, so if you live in the city you'll need to travel to see this one.

Anyone with a predilection for Middle Eastern music should enjoy Florence Strauss's documentary Between Two Notes, which is a French-Canadian co-production. The titular two notes refers to the half tones common to occidental music and the quarter tones of oriental music, and how they have come to draw inspiration from each other over the centuries. The film travels all over the Middle East examining this phenomenon, from Coptic churches in Egypt where liturgical chants claim pharaonic origins, to Jaffa in Israel where Jewish musicians speak of their love for Arab composers such as Abdel Wahab. In one memorable scene we meet a man who has created an Arab trumpet by putting a small valve near the mouthpiece, thereby allowing quarter tones to ring out. Apart from being a bit unfocussed, my only complaint about the film is the director's intrusive voiceovers in which she talks about herself and her family history. Strauss's grandfather, legendary film producer Robert Hakim (Belle de Jour, L'Aventura, Pépé le Moko) was an Egyptian Jew who emigrated to France. This is interesting in and of itself, but its relationship to the film's main subject matter seems tenuous at best. Regardless, the film's exotic locales and thrilling musical sequences make this a choice viewing experience for music lovers.

At the 2006 Israeli Film Academy Awards, two narrative features shared the Best Picture prize and the SFJFF has included them both in this year's festival. While I don't think either are as dynamic or inspired as some other recent Israeli features, both are respectable efforts that will definitely be of interest to attendees of this festival. The first is Dror Shaul's Opening Night film Sweet Mud, which I saw at a festival press screening. Set on a kibbutz in 1974, it's a bittersweet story about a 12-year-old boy and his pretty, but mentally unstable widowed mother. The film is ultimately a critique of child-rearing within the Israeli kibbutz system and was inspired by the director's childhood memories. It's also the only film I've ever seen in which a major character receives a blowjob from a cow—in the opening scene no less!

Shemi Zarhin's Aviva My Love, which I saw at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is about one woman's struggle to balance family demands with a need for artistic expression. Our harried heroine Aviva is an aspiring short story writer in those rare moments when she's not holding down a cooking job or dealing with her ultra needy family. When she begins seeking professional advice from a famous author with writer's block, a familial monetary crisis forces her into making a devil's bargain. The performances in this film are uniformly excellent, especially that of Assi Levy as Aviva, and I was taken with the film's unique setting in the Sea of Galilee town of Tiberias. Interestingly, all of the film's male characters are deeply flawed, and I wondered if the (male) director was intending to make some sort of statement about contemporary Israeli men. I should also mention that—in addition to sharing the Israeli Film Academy Award for Best Picture—this film also walked away with awards for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Screenplay.

As a Francophile who hopes that one day the Bay Area will have its own Rendez-vous with French Cinema or City of Lights City of Angels series, I'm grateful when other festivals step in with French fare that hasn't received US theatrical distribution or appeared at the San Francisco International. The SFJFF gives us two new French features this year, Roschdy Zem's Bad Faith and Lisa Azuelos's Gorgeous! Bad Faith is described as a romantic comedy, which it certainly is for the first two-thirds of its running time. Jewish Clara and Muslim Ishmael are a young, Parisian couple who've been together for four years. Neither they or their families are particularly observant when it comes to religion, but all that changes when Clara announces she's pregnant. What follows is a nicely observed look at the foibles of culture clash, until people begin doing things that seem way out of character. The story then takes a very dark turn, culminating in a tragedy of errors that leads our couple to an abortion clinic. The ending is weirdly ambiguous as to whether Clara did or didn't, and is followed by a mystifyingly cheery coda. Actor Zem (Days of Glory), co-starring as Ishmael, makes a promising, if flawed directorial debut here, and it's nice to see ingenue Cecile de France tackling a grittier role than ususal.

Lisa Azuelos's Gorgeous! is the type of film I would normally file under Could Not Care Less; four smart 'n snappy urban women deal with relationship and family issues when they're not yacking on cell phones or reading celebrity gossip magazines, or hanging out in the fabulous beauty spa one of them owns or dishing the hot men who are pursuing them. It's been compared to Sex and the City, but with husbands and kids, and I found myself mostly enjoying it in spite of myself. The fast-moving script is generous with clever one-liners, and I was even able to (barely) forgive the clichéd pop-song montages (except for the dreaded We Are Family, which mercifully comes at the film's end). I especially got a kick out of a subplot in which divorced salon-owner Isa enters into a civil union with her indispensable Arab maid/nanny in order to keep her from being deported. This renders her Jewish mama apoplectic ("40 years in France for my daughter to marry her maid!"). Oh right, I neglected to mention that all four women are Jewish, a fact that seems pretty much incidental to the story, except for the holiday celebrations that bookend the film.

In the festival this year are two films which take a look at the Jewish Diaspora in Latin America. The first is Gabriela Böhm's documentary The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America, which begins by taking a historical look at the emigration of crypto-Jews to the New World during the Inquisition. We next meet up with a small group of their descendants from various parts of South America, all of whom have some vague sense of their family's Jewish past, i.e. a great-grandmother who lit candles every Friday and refused to eat pork. United by their desire to officially convert to Judaism, they've enlisted the help (via the internet) of Rabbi Jacques Cuikerkorn from Kansas City. The rabbi specializes in the conversion of crypto-Jews and the bulk of the film centers on a journey he makes to Guayaquil, Ecuador to convert the aspiring faithful. This part of the film is quite moving and I was particularly fascinated by the resistance of the established Jewish community in Guayaquil (most of whom emigrated from Europe during WWII) to accept these new converts whom they feel "muddy the waters of traditional Judaism."

Alejandro Springall's My Mexican Shiva is a broad, middling comedy I desperately wanted to like. It's hardly awful, but neither is it particularly inspired. When family patriarch Moishe dies of a heart attack, his extended family and friends gather together for seven days to mourn, pay respects and kvetch. Secrets are revealed and desires re-ignited and so on. If the idea of an eccentric, pot-smoking new-age aunt is your idea of hilarity, then this film may be for you. As for me, it only came alive in a scene where Moishe's reviled shiksa mistress dares to show her face at the shiva, and something truly unexpected happens.

A sidebar to this year's festival is a focus on Jewish boxers, and boxing historian Mike Silver provides some interesting statistics in his SFJFF catalogue essay. For example, from 1914 to 1939 there was a Jewish world champion in every single year. But as Program Director Nancy K. Fishman also notes, when it comes to boxing, "you're either enamored or repulsed by it." Count me in the latter camp, which is why of all the boxing films in the festival I chose to view legendary Jewish B-movie director Edgar Ulmer's 1943 comedy My Son, the Hero. The film features a supporting performance by Jewish boxer "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom as Kid Slug, whose third-rate manager Percy (Roscoe Karns) is expecting a visit from his war hero son. With the help of The Kid's wise-cracking girlfriend Gerty (a revelatory performance by Patsy Kelly), they help Percy put on the dog for the son who believes his father is some rich big-shot. This film was a delight to watch, not least because it's loaded with the delicious slang of its day. I wanted to hijack a time machine just so I could go toss around phrases like hash-slinger, slug-nutty, scram, and here's mud in your eye.

The festival comes to a close with Rachel Talbot's documentary Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, which profiles the lives and careers of six 20th century comediennes: Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and Wendy Wasserstein. I'm pretty familiar with all of their stories and happily, this film added a good deal of new information to what I already knew. It contains some choice photos and clips (an 80-year-old Picon turning tumblesaults on the Mike Douglas Show for example), although as is usually the case with these types of documentaries, I wouldn't have complained if there had been even more. I thought the section on Sophie Tucker was particularly well done, and it was nice to be reminded of a time when I didn't loathe Joan Rivers. The documentary is framed by four contemporary Jewish comics who banter while noshing at Katz's Deli in NYC. Embarrassingly, I admit to my unfamiliarity with all four, but their comments and observations about our six subjects, and Jewish humor in general, are pointed and colorful.

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