The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) hits the big 3-0 this year, and will celebrate that landmark anniversary with a slate of 57 films from 14 countries. At last week's press conference, Executive Director Peter L. Stein and Program Director Jay Rosenblatt gave a guided tour of this year's films and special events, which will run from July 24 to August 9 at five Bay Area venues. Rosenblatt is a celebrated local film director who now finds himself on the other side of filmmaker/film festival divide. He replaces Nancy K. Fishman, who left the fest after seven years at the programming helm. The SFJFF is the oldest and largest festival of its kind, and was recently named one of the world's 50 leading film festivals by indieWIRE.
Many wondered how the SFJFF would emerge—artistically and financially—from fallout caused by 2009's contentious screening of the documentary Rachel. At the press conference, the film wasn't even mentioned by name, but was euphemistically referred to as "the earthquake." Anyone who was at the Rachel screening can tell you how painful it was to witness such fractiousness at a Bay Area cultural event. I personally heard one megabucks donor defiantly proclaim he'd never give the festival another dime and it seems he's made good on his threat. I've since learned that in response, many SFJFF fans upped their membership levels to demonstrate support for the festival's diverse programming. While nothing appears to harbor a Rachel-like potential for divisiveness this year, who knows? One SFJFF30 panel discussion is tellingly named, Is Dialogue Possible? How Films Help Us Talk About Israel (…Or Not).
SFJFF30 unofficially kicks off on Saturday, July 10 with a free outdoor Union Square screening of 1987's Dirty Dancing, starring the late Patrick Swayze and a "pre nose-job" Jennifer Grey. The event is co-presented by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation as part of its "Film Night in the Park" series. The festival proper launches two weeks later on Saturday, July 24. This year's opening night film is Ludi Boeken's WWII drama Saviors in the Night, based on the true story of Marga Spiegel, a Jewish woman hidden from the SS by a righteous Catholic farm family. Spiegel herself, now 98, is expected to attend the Castro Theater screening along with director Boeken and actress Lia Hoensbroech. This year's 30th anniversary Opening Night Bash will take place after, rather than before the screening. Opening night itself has been moved from Thursday to Saturday so people can party down without worrying about work the next day.
A highlight of this year's festival is a special program titled Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, curated by Fishman. In the catalog she writes, "Scratch the bark on your family tree and you might uncover a Jewish gangster or someone who paid off a Jewish gangster." Indeed, at the press conference Fishman revealed that her own grandparents once received an ominous funeral wreath from gangster "Dopey Benny" Fein. The four films in this series include Barry Levinson's 1991 Bugsy with Warren Beatty, 1961's King of the Roaring 20's—The Story of Art Rothstein starring David Janssen (TV's The Fugitive), Mickey Rooney and Diana Dors, 1975's Lepke starring Tony Curtis as mobster Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, and finally Howard Hawk's 1932 classic Scarface, "a gangster movie that would have had a Jewish subtext for the Jewish audience of its day because of Paul Muni's career in the Yiddish theater."
Following the screening of Lepke, Fishman will moderate a panel discussion with writers Ron Arons (The Jews of Sing Sing), Patricia Brett Erens (The Jew in American Cinema) and Albert Fried (The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster). And if that ain't enough Jewish gangsta for ya, the JCCSF presents an exhibition of paintings by Pat Hamou, "Wise Guys: Mobsters in the Mishpacha," from now until September 15, and the SFJFF will screen four more Jewish gangster movies at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this autumn, starting with John Sayles Eight Men Out on October 3.
Each year the SFJFF hands out a Freedom of Expression Award, honoring "the unfettered imagination, which is the cornerstone of a free, just and open society." Jay Rosenblatt was one of its earliest recipients in 2005. This year's honor goes to Arab-Israeli writer/satirist Sayed Kashua, who has made a career of skewering Israeli/Palestinian relations in an irreverent manner that "somehow brings Arabs and Jews together in wincing, barrier-breaking laughter." Episodes from the first season of his hit TV sit-com Arab Labor were shown at the festival two years ago, which I regrettably missed. Arab Labor: Season One spent a long time in my Netflix queue listed as "a very long wait," before disappearing from the on-line rental service altogether. Happily, three episodes from Arab Labor: Season Two will have their international premiere at SFJFF30 just prior to Kashua receiving his award. The following day, the documentary Sayed Kashua—Forever Sacred will screen, preceded by an Arab Labor episode from Season One.
When I first glanced at this year's line-up, the film that leapt out was Robert Guédiguian's Army of Crime. I've been a fan of this French-Armenian director's politically humanist films ever since Marius and Jeanette became a U.S. arthouse hit in 1998. Unfortunately, only three of his eight subsequent films ever made it to the Bay Area (The Town is Quiet, The Last Mitterrand, Lady Jane), which makes the appearance of Army of Crime something to celebrate. The film, which details the exploits of a group of Jewish-Communist French resistance fighters during WWII, has received rave reviews across the board. It stars such notables as Guédiguian regulars Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian's wife), as well as Simon Abkarian, Virginie Ledoyen and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. If you're unable to catch the film's lone SFJFF screening on July 28, it'll be back for a one-week run on the SF Film Society's Sundance Kabuki screen on August 20.
There are two additional French films playing SFJFF30. Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family was the most interesting film I saw at the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series last year. This wildly offbeat drama traces the dissolution of a family headed by a small town Jewish mayor, all set to a soundtrack of eclectic R&B singles from the 60's and '70s. I certainly hope to see it again. The other film is Marco Carmel's Father's Footsteps. It's also about a family, this one an Israeli-Tunisian clan struggling against the seduction of criminal life in 1970's Paris. It was nominated for five 2008 Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress and Cinematography.
Sometimes the most interesting SFJFF films are from the outer reaches of the Jewish Diaspora. Therefore I was delighted to see three films from Latin America on the roster. Marcos Carnevale's Anita has been selected as the festival's Centerpiece Film, and is about a young woman with Down syndrome searching the streets of Buenos Aires for her mother. The mother is played by legendary Argentine actress Norma Aleandro, with Alejandra Manzo in the titular role of daughter Anita (the latter is expected to attend the festival screening). Ilusiones Opticas is a debut feature from Chilean director Cristián Jiménez. This melancholic comedy has been compared to the works of Scandinavian deadpan masters Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki. The film will be preceded by the short What About Me? by Etgar Keret and Shira Gegen, co-directors of the 2007 Israeli hit comedy Jellyfish. Finally, in Fabian Hofman's semi-autobiographical Te extraño (I Miss You), a Jewish teen is sent to live with relatives in Mexico after his older brother "disappears" during Argentina's Dirty War.
Two films I regretted missing at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival have happily resurfaced at SFJFF30. Tali Shalom Ezer's Surrogate follows an emotionally damaged young man through his sessions with a sex surrogate. The fest catalog warns/promises that "This film contains nudity." A Room and a Half is Russian animator/documentarian Andrey Khrzhanovsky's fanciful riff on the life of Nobel prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky. This film was off my radar until rave reviews began pouring in from 2009's New York Film Festival. A Room and a Half also connects two SFJFF30 sidebars. People of the Book spotlights films exploring Jewish and Israeli literary lives and includes Ahead of Time (a doc about acclaimed journalist/photographer Ruth Gruber), Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams and Grace Paley: Collected Shorts. The other sidebar, Voices of the Former Soviet Union, includes Stalin Thought of You and My Perestroika. The former is a documentary about Soviet political cartoonist Boris Efimov and his delicate relationship with the dictator who murdered his beloved Pravda editor brother (this film also screened at Mill Valley). My Perestroika profiles five Russians who came of age during the collapse of the USSR, and it received terrific reviews from Sundance and New Directors/New Films. As someone who travelled frequently to the Soviet Union during this period of radical change, it's a film I'm particularly looking forward to.
SFJFF30 closes in San Francisco—and opens in Berkeley—with The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, Erik Greenberg Anjou's musical documentary about a band that's spent 20 years redefining and popularizing the Jewish dance/folk music genre known as klezmer. Another SFJFF music doc, The "Socalled" Movie, takes a look at Socalled, a.k.a Josh Dolgin, a Jewish/Canadian rapper/filmmaker/visual artist/YouTube sensation who's so hip he performs with ex-James Brown bandleader Fred Wesley. Socalled is expected to perform live on the Castro Theater stage, and his film will be preceded by Maurice at the World's Fair, a Spike Jonze-directed short made for Maurice Sendak's 80th birthday. And if you didn't get your fill of silent films at the previous week's SF Silent Film Festival, the psych-folk band Moab Strangers will perform a newly commissioned score alongside 1922's over-the-top Jewish immigrant melodrama Hungry Hearts.
But wait, there's more! Relations between a young Israeli woman and the Palestinian mechanic who works at her father's garage leads to tragedy in Keren Yedaya's Jaffa. Set in the port city that adjoins Tel Aviv, it's directed by the maker of 2005's much lauded Or, and features my favorite Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz (Late Marriage, The Band's Visit). Two more films exploring Israeli/Palestinian issues are the documentaries My So-Called Enemy and Budrus, the latter having screened at this year's SF International Film Festival. And speaking of the SFIFF, director Sam Green (The Weather Underground) will reprise his "live" documentary Utopia in Four Movements at the SFJFF. Those in the throes of the current baseball season might want to check out the Dustin Hoffman-narrated doc Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. In Ry Russo-Young's feature You Won't Miss Me, a young woman recently released from a mental hospital tries to navigate life in NYC. The film stars Stella Schnabel, daughter of artist/filmmaker Julian, and it won last year's Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. Finally, a married couple's relationship is turned upside down when the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia in the stylish thriller Protektor—a film that happens to be sponsored by my friend Michael Ehrenzweig. There are roughly a dozen more programs I haven't touched on; all the more reason to pick up a SFJFF30 catalog or go on-line for a closer look.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.