Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SFJFF 2008—Michael Hawley's Documentary Dozen

The 28th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival ("SFJFF") takes place throughout the Bay Area from July 24 to August 11, and in terms of the number of films and screenings on offer, it's their largest one yet. Although I'm sure the program contains some fine narrative features, the eclectic selection of documentaries is what really grabbed my attention this year. Here are a dozen that I've had the chance to preview.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil—There once was (and still is) a metal band named Anvil, who in the early eighties had a monster hit called "Metal on Metal." Twenty-plus years, 12 albums and many diminishing returns later, the band finds itself unable and unwilling to say die. Ex-Anvil roadie Sacha Gervasi's film documents the group's recent years, tagging along during a semi-disastrous European tour and the creation of a 13th Anvil album, This is 13. This is also the tempestuous tale of two lifelong friends/bandmates, Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Rob Reiner, both of whom, incidentally, are Jewish and Canadian. Fans of the metal genre should find much to enjoy here—but between the music, the intra-band screaming matches and the tearful revelations of long suffering family, Anvil! had me reaching for the Advil!

At Home in Utopia—The utopia in the title refers to The Coops, a 700-family apartment complex built in the Bronx by Jewish Communists in 1925. Spurred by recently constructed subway lines, this "fortress for the worker against its enemies" was cooperatively owned and run by immigrants who'd had enough of slum living. With its spacious rooms, landscaped gardens and sculpted hammer and sickle motifs decorating the entryways, this "Little Moscow" was considered heaven on earth by its inhabitants. Many of The Coop's residents were instrumental in shaping the American labor movement. Integrating African American families into its social fabric was considered essential. Director Michael Goldman documents all this with some extraordinary archival material, along with articulate interviews with Coops residents present and past (actress Linda Lavin narrates). This bittersweet film made me nostalgic for an era that envisioned communism as a humane way of existence, as yet uncorrupted by the machinations of crackpot despots. Highly recommended.

Bi'lin My Love—Bil'in is one of the many Palestinian villages that have been decimated by Israel's "separation barrier," aka The Apartheid Wall. The ancient olive trees which provided the village's economic lifeblood have been ripped from the ground, and half of its land has been confiscated to build an illegal Israeli settlement. Shai Carmeli Pollack's film records a year's worth of resistance to the barrier by Bi'lin villagers, Israeli sympathizers and international activists. Their defiance, however, aside from raising awareness, turns out to be pretty much for naught, as this dispiriting documentary ultimately reveals. If there's any hope to be found here, it's in the fact that the Israeli government continues to fund films such as this one.

Description of a Struggle—For Bay Area cinephiles, the highlight of the festival will certainly be this ultra-rare screening of Chris Marker's 1960 modernist documentary about Israel. Filmed 12 short years after the country's birth and two years before his revolutionary short film La Jetée, Marker takes a semiological approach to the art of political travelogue. He sees signs everywhere: in the dome of a planetarium and the dome of a synagogue, in a boy pushcart-racing his way down an urban slope and in a camel-crossing sign on a flat desert highway. Remarkable imagery plays up against Marker's own provocative voiceover narration, as he ruminates on the young nation's political and cultural past, present and future. (Curiously, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees don't rate a mention). Description of a Struggle screens only one time during the festival, at 11:30 am on Saturday, August 9 in Berkeley's Roda Theater. The good news is that the festival will be screening a 35mm print. The not-so-good news is that Marker's original French narration has been dubbed in Hebrew (with English and French subtitles), as it was on the screener copy I previewed. Still, highly recommended.

Description of a Memory—On the same program as Description of a Struggle is this engaging contemplation of Marker's film by director Dan Geva. Selecting 13 distinct memories from Struggle (seen in clips with Marker's original voiceover intact), Geva adds his own contemporary images and narration to reflect upon the enormous changes that have occurred in Israel during the past 50 years. The double humps of Marker's camel-crossing sign have morphed into McDonald's golden arches. Marker's nearly deserted beaches of Eilat have evolved/devolved into a Middle Eastern Miami Beach. Geva tracks down several of the people profiled in Struggle, including the enigmatic, long-necked girl seen drawing at her easel. Marker assigned her the weighty chore of symbolizing Israel's future, and Geva finds her now living abroad. Description of a Memory serves as a timely and germane companion piece to Struggle, and together they make for one very compelling afternoon at the movies.

Flipping Out—After three years of mandatory military service, Israeli soldiers are paid a sweet discharge bonus. And each year, an estimated 30,000 of them will take that money and fly to India, where they'll consume massive amounts of drugs. Director Yoav Shamir tries to make sense of the phenomenon, with not particularly insightful results. The few ex-soldiers he interviews seem unfazed by whatever traumatic events, if any, they experienced while in the military (or are too stoned to express it). Instead, the film focuses on the less interesting story of efforts to rescue and return to Israel those few ex-soldiers who indeed "flip out." It's not a bad film—just not on a level with Shamir's stunning debut, 2004's Checkpoint.

It Kinda Scares Me—One of the highlights of Frameline29 was Tomer Heymann's Paper Dolls, which looked at the world of Filipino transvestites working as caregivers to elderly Israelis. As a sidebar to this year's Jewish Film Festival, six other documentaries produced and/or directed by Tomer and/or his brother Barak, are being presented to Bay Area audiences. It Kinda Scares Me was Tomer's 2001 directorial debut and documents his social work with at-risk teenage boys in the seedy Tel Aviv suburb of Azur. Over the course of a year, he channels their anger and marginalization into the creation of a terrific piece of theater. These boys, whose brushes with the law include drugs, theft and assault, get to try interpretive dance on for size, and the most boisterous of the bunch, Yakov, turns out to have a poetic soul ("Her pussy is like a black pistachio … like a burnt puff pastry on Sabbath eve.") The film's emotional climax comes when Tomer reveals to the group that he's gay, and their reaction is not what you'd expect. Absorbing, touching and highly recommended.

Jerusalem is Proud to Present—I suppose that it's progress of some kind when Jews, Muslims and Christians can agree on something, even if that something is hatred of lesbians and gays. Nitzan Gilady's serviceable film documents efforts to stage a Jerusalem World Pride march in the summer of 2006, and the contentious reaction that provokes in all three religious communities. Pride organizers are accused of "moral terrorism" and the "spiritual rape of Jerusalem," and are the recipients of numerous death threats. Residents of the city's ultra-orthodox Mea Sharim neighborhood stage a riot, injuring 45 police in the process. After newly escalating tensions with Lebanon are blamed on the "homosexualization of the Middle East," the march is cancelled and the Pride celebration relegated to the secure confines of an enclosed stadium. Recent gay films such as Antarctica and Japan Japan seem to portray gay life in Israel (or at least in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv) as some sort of LGBT Shangri-La. The events in this film, however, would seem to contradict that image.

Miss Universe 1929: Lisl Goldarbeiter, A Queen in Wien—Each year the Jewish Film Festival presents a Freedom of Expression Award, honoring "the unfettered imagination, which is the cornerstone of a free, just and open society." This year's award goes to Hungarian director Péter Forgács, who has made a career of transforming the forgotten photographs, diaries and home movies of European Jews into a singular form of documentary storytelling. Forgács has made over 30 such films in the past 20 years, and if Miss Universe 1929 is representative of his work, I'm hungry to see more. The film lovingly recounts a tale of two cousins, a young Austrian beauty named Lisl and her adoring Hungarian relative Marci. It was Marci who submitted Lisl's photo to the pageant, which led to her being crowned the first non-American (and only Austrian ever) Miss Universe in 1929 Galveston, Texas. Throughout Lisl's first marriage to a gambling ne'er-do-well and the tumult of WWII, Marci hung in there, eventually marrying his cousin in 1949 when both were 40-years-old. And in a rare happy ending for this kind of story, the marriage lasted almost 50 years until Lisl passed away in 1997. As part of its tribute to Forgács, the festival is also showing a double bill of 1997's The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle and 1998's The Danube Exodus. Highly recommended.

Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel—Of all the documentaries in the festival, this one carries the highest profile, having garnered loads of media attention when it screened at the New York Jewish Film Festival this spring. Stalags were immensely popular Israeli pornographic novels from the early sixties, in which Allied POWs recounted tales of sexual torture by buxom Nazi SS babes. They arrived at a time when the world was first learning about concentration camp horrors (via the trial of Adolf Eichmann), and were penned in Hebrew using English sentence structures (to deceive Israeli readers into thinking the books were written abroad). In this loaded and densely packed film, Director Ari Libsker interviews Stalag writers and collectors, and goes about the messy business of deciphering the books' psychological and sociological implications. Interestingly, the entire film was shot in black and white, save for the colorfully lurid book covers, which boast such titles as The Monster of Horror Stalag and I Was Colonel Schultz's Private Bitch. Stalags was produced by Barak Heymann and is showing on a double bill with his brother Tomar's It Kinda Scares Me. For a closer look at the film's reception in New York, The Greencine Daily compiles reviews and write-ups here and here. Highly recommended.

Stefan Braun—This is the story of two gay men: Stefan Braun, a rich, lusty furrier to Israel's wealthy elite, and Eliezer "Latsi" Rath, his "partner" of 39 years who lived in Braun's servant's quarters and was apparently treated as such. Through interviews with family and ex-employees, we're given a rudimentary portrait of Braun and a glimpse of Israeli gay life in the fifties and sixties. But the film's real point of interest is Rath, whom we first see recording an audio cassette love letter to Braun, a ritual he performs daily in Braun's untouched bedroom (Braun died in 1990). It seems the very picture of devout passion, but others suspect a more sinister side to Rath. After Braun sold his fur salon in the late eighties, Rath took over his personal finances, and the once vibrant and impeccably dressed Braun started roaming the streets looking seedy and dejected. When he died leaving his entire estate to Rath, the shocked family sued over the will. (Rath prevailed after a four-year court battle.) Director Itamar Alcalay does an adept job of recounting this uncanny tale. I only wish that Rainer Werner Fassbinder were still alive to give it the gloriously overblown treatment it cries out for.

Tulip Time: The Rise and Fall of the Trio Lescano—Alexandra, Judith and Kitty Leschan were the daughters of a Jewish Dutch operetta singer and a Hungarian circus contortionist. They left Holland in 1935 to seek their fortune in Italy, and within two years became the country's top recording artists—the Andrews Sisters-emulating Trio Lescano. The rising fascist government adored them too, until their songs were deemed subversive (the composers being anti-fascist) and their Jewishness became problematic enough to earn them a brief stint in prison. In post-war Europe their act was met with indifference, forcing them to finish out their career touring South America. Directors Marco De Stefanis and Tonino Boniotti's fascinating film is one of several being shown in a festival sidebar called Italian Jews During Fascism. It screens one time only at the Castro Theater on Wednesday, July 30 at 2 pm. FOR FREE! Highly recommended.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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