S.F. Jewish Film Festival 35 Preview

35th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Preview

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (hereafter SFJFF) has seen changes both cultural and technical in its 35 years of existence. It has gone from being in 1980 the only Jewish film festival of its kind to now being one of 150 similar festivals around the world. Celluloid and videotape have been joined by digital media to tell cinematic stories of the Jewish experience.

This year’s anniversary celebration, which runs at various Bay Area venues between July 23 and August 9, still delivers the high quality that has kept SFJFF thriving all these years. The 70 films from over 16 countries screened this year include celebratory nods to such things as the conclusion of World War II, social justice-themed documentaries, and female directors.

A couple of films even provide indirect nods to the first SFJFF. The cinematic adaptation of Tillie Olsen’s acclaimed novella Tell Me A Riddle was showcased at the very first SFJFF. Bailbondsman turned eventual sculptor Jerry Ross Barrish, the titular subject of Plastic Man: The Artful Life Of Jerry Ross Barrish, was SFJFF’s first business sponsor.

To help make SFJFF 35’s offerings feel manageable, here are some suggestions from the program:

SFJFF 35 kicks off with John Goldschmidt’s British comedic drama Dough. Nat (Jonathan Pryce) runs a 100-year-old kosher bakery fallen on hard times thanks to a steadily declining customer base and the loss of key personnel. Nat’s new assistant, struggling Darfur immigrant Ayyash, accidentally turns things around with a very popular cannabis-laced challah.

Of local interest is Love And Taxes, Jacob Kornbluth’s film adaptation of Josh Kornbluth’s solo performance show. It’s a practical demonstration of how the simple act of the solo performer’s filing his taxes magically improves his life and career big time…and also creates a financial time bomb that threatens to destroy his gains.

For those who missed screenings at other Bay Area film festivals, they shouldn’t skip SFJFF’s showings of the following films: local filmmaker Leah Wolchok’s look at the people who both make and select the cartoons printed in The New Yorker (Very Semi-Serious); director Brendan Toller capturing the reminiscences of Danny Fields, who worked with such rock luminaries as Jim Morrison, the MC5, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges (Danny Says); the aforementioned portrait of Jerry Ross Barrish (Plastic Man); and Joey Kuhn’s tale of a gay love triangle set among Manhattan’s social elite (Those People).

On the other hand, a film being theatrically screened for the first time is Sidney Bernstein’s German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. As German concentration camps were liberated from Occupied Europe, combat cameramen filmed the atrocities discovered in the camps. Director Alfred Hitchcock offered advice on footage assemblage for best emotional impact. But the intended audience, the German public, never saw the film. Now, 70 years after the end of World War II, the film that haunted Hitchcock finally gets a public showing.

Also shown in commemoration of the end of World War II (and the 30th anniversary of Shoah’s theatrical release) is Adam Benzine’s Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah. The famed director talks about the behind the scenes challenges of making his seminal Holocaust documentary. These difficulties include covertly filming former Nazis, the exhausting financial and physical effort to make this film, and even the death threats Lanzmann received.

The SFJFF documentary that might generate a bit of controversy is Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky’s The Zionist Idea. It’s a history of how Zionism originated and changed over the years through its real-world implementation, including its impact on the people affected on both sides by this political-religious philosophy.

Censored Voices, from director Mor Loushy, captures a seminal moment in the history of Zionism with previously censored oral reminiscences about the Six Day War from the soldiers who fought in it. The film documents the mental sea change that occurred when the Israeli military men changed their identification from David to Goliath.

Another tale of forgotten history brought back to life can be found in Aviva Kempner’s new documentary Rosenwald. Julius Rosenwald lived the Horatio Alger story of going from door-to-door salesman to leading Sears, Roebuck, and Company. But his greater legacy lay in his far-ranging philanthropy, which spent $1 billion in today’s dollars to do everything from providing fellowship grants for such up-and-coming writers as James Baldwin to building over 5,500 schools for rural Southern black children.

A different sort of legacy is dramatized in Christian Faure’s French docudrama The Law. It relates the backroom dealings and political backstabbing that accompanied the efforts of Health Minister Simone Veil (Emanuelle Devos) to get abortion legalized in France. Giving the drama a noirish look makes clear that the viewer is not in The West Wing territory any more.

Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan’s partly animated documentary The Wanted 18 milks an incident from the first Intifada for dark humor. A small Palestinian village’s decision to acquire eighteen milk cows from a kibbutz becomes both an act of political protest and a source of unintended comedy given the Israeli military’s unexpected overreaction to the bovines.

Laughter will definitely not be a viewer’s reaction to Matt Fuller’s touching documentary Autism In Love. The film follows four adults with autism spectrum disorders as they try to form romantic connections or even get married.

Rick Goldsmith’s Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey Of Chamique Holdsclaw presents the woman’s basketball player who overcame a disadvantaged background to be considered the female equivalent of Michael Jordan. But the assertion of mental illness Holdsclaw kept at bay would necessitate a new life path.

The above suggestions provide only a taste of SFJFF 35’s offerings. Whether the reader chooses to instead check out a portrait of the man behind the Nathan’s Famous hot dog chain (Famous Nathan) or see a comedy about two 40-something Parisians who unsuccessfully try to make amends for past romantic mistakes (My Shortest Love Affair), they should remember to give a joyful shout for SFJFF’s existence and hope for at least 35 more great years.

(For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to the SFJFF official website.)

About the Author

I’m a film reviewer for the Beyond Chron blog. Agnes Varda and Hirokazu Kore-eda are among my favorite filmmakers. I occasionally break down and watch a good action film…but don’t tell anyone.

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