Saturday, July 04, 2009

SFJFF09—Michael Hawley Anticipates the Line-Up

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) turns a ripe young age of 29 this year, continuing its reign as the oldest and largest festival of its kind in the world. Over the course of 18 days (July 23 to August 10) SFJFF will present 71 films from 18 countries—showcasing the best Israeli and Jewish Diasporan cinema to emerge in the past year. Although I missed last week's press conference announcing the line-up, I've poured over the catalog and compiled this list of ten programs I don't want to miss.

1. Acné—Slowly but surely, 2008's bumper crop of acclaimed Latin American films is making its way into Bay Area festivals, rep houses and art cinemas. This first feature from Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj was a hit from Cannes' Directors Fortnight, and is said to be a bittersweet, deadpan comedy about a teenage boy's raging hormones.

2. The Yes Men Fix the World—I knew this film would turn up in the Bay Area eventually, but I didn't expect to find it at the SFJFF. In this follow-up to 2003's The Yes Men, anti-corporate, anti-government pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno take on Halliburton, Dow Chemical, and first-time film directing duties. If there are any heroes left in this crummy world, it's these guys, and I'm thrilled that Bichlbaum is expected to attend the July 26 screening at the Castro.

3. I Am Von Höfler—For me, the revelation of last year's SFJFF was Freedom of Expression Award winner Péter Forgács, a Hungarian director who transforms the forgotten photographs, diaries and home movies of European Jews into a singular form of documentary filmmaking. His new 160-minute epic tells the tale of one Tibor Von Höfler—bon vivant, chemist, cad—whose extraordinary life witnessed the German invasion of Hungary, the Holocaust and communism's rise and fall.

4. Defamation—In the most talked out doc at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Israeli director Yoav Shamir (Checkpoint, Flipping Out) looks into the nature of modern day anti-Semitism from both a global and personal perspective. I'm anticipating that his July 26 Castro Q&A will be the liveliest of the fest.

5. A History of Israeli Cinema—Clocking in at a butt-numbing 210 minutes, Raphaël Nadjari's two-part doc employs film clips and interviews to survey 60-plus years of Israeli filmmaking. Alissa Simon's
Variety review is packed with qualms and quibbles, but one look at the list of participating directors and actors should render this essential viewing.

6. Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg—Who knew that television's first sit-com was about a nice Jewish family in the Bronx? The show was called The Goldbergs and Director Aviva Kempner's film profiles its creator, writer and star, Gertrude Berg—a mega-talent who was also a luminary of radio, Broadway and film. At the July 28 Castro screening, Kempner will receive the festival's 2009 Freedom of Expression Award. Additionally, in a program aptly titled The Goldbergs, you can watch four back-to-back episodes of the popular CBS sitcom (including one that features a young Anne Bancroft).

7. Hello, Goodbye—Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu star as a middle-aged Jewish French couple who leave Paris to start a new life in Tel Aviv. Variety's Jordan Mintzer unkindly characterizes the film as "one oy-vey after another," but the presence of Israeli heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage, Walk on Water) in the cast pretty much critic-proofs the film for me.

8. Lost Islands—This was Israel's biggest box office hit of 2008, earning an impressive 14 Israeli Film Academy Awards nominations (and losing the top prize to Waltz With Bashir). Set in the 1980's with the Lebanon war as a backdrop, the film is about twin brothers in a tight-knit family whose loyalties are put to a test.

9. The Gift to Stalin—Films from Central Asia have become less of a rarity in recent years, and a high percentage of those I've seen have been quite extraordinary. In Kazakh director Rustem Abdrashov's new feature, a Jewish boy en route to Siberian exile is rescued and raised by an elderly Muslim villager. Of significance to the story is the film's 1949 setting, a time when the USSR used Kazakhstan as an atom bomb testing ground.

10. The Wedding Song—This year's SFJFF closes with Karin Albou's follow-up to her 2005 award-winning La Petite Jérusalem. In 1942 Tunis, two teenage girls of marriageable age—one Muslim and one Jewish—find their futures, and their relationship with each other, challenged by the Nazi occupation of Tunisia.

Of course, this list barely scratches the surface of what's on offer at this year's fest. Depending on time and inclination, here are some others I may check out. SFJFF has a reputation for its timely, issue-driven documentaries and this year is no exception.
Rachel investigates the 2003 incident that saw a 22-year-old American killed while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer in the Occupied Territories. Director Shai Carmeli-Pollak follows last year's tragic Bilin My Love with Refugees, a look at Sudanese refuges who've tried to emigrate from Darfur to Israel. One-third of Bedouin Israeli women live in polygamous households, and Ada Ushpiz' Desert Brides examines their unhappy plight. Emily and Sarah Kunstler direct a profile of their radical defense attorney father in William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.

Amongst the remaining narratives, here are a few more that caught my eye. Sundance favorite Adam features Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving in a tale of mismatched young lovers in NYC. (Adam will be preceded by Eve, a short directed by actress Natalie Portman.) This year's Sundance opening night film was the Australian animated feature Mary and Max, which features the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna) and Toni Collette. Collette also stars in the SFJFF 2009 Australian opening night film, Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger. Noted French actors Charles Berling and Miou-Miou head the cast of Cycles, a family drama Variety's Jordan Mintzer unfortunately describes as "more Lifetime than real life." Israeli features The Tale of Nicolai & The Law of Return and Zrubavel tell stories of immigrants from Romania and Ethiopia respectively. And finally, there's Empty Nest, the latest from top Argentine director Daniel Burman (Lost Embrace, Family Law), which I saw on screener sometime last year. I'm a big Burman fan, but this labored, male mid-life crisis fantasy left me wanting. Perhaps a second look is in order.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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