The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in now something of a misnomer on three counts. The nearly-three-weeks of screenings unspooled in nine locations splayed all over the Bay Area, including Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael. The program includes other events in addition to films: parties, panel discussions, concerts, and this year a special “multi-platform media” storytelling event. The title of this year’s festival, “Life Through a Jew(ish) Lens,” indicated that this year the programmers included films where one might be hard-pressed to discern the overtly Jewish content — examples include “After Tiller,” the powerful documentary about third-trimester abortion providers, and another documentary, “The Trials of Muhammed Ali,” about the Supreme Court ruling on Muhammed Ali’s conscientious objector status in the Vietnam war, where the program notes “No, Muhammed Ali is not Jewish. But certain films when placed in a Jewish context inspire truly Jewish conversation.”
I don’t care why a movie is programmed as long as I’m happy to see it. And for years I’ve considered the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival to be one of the best-programmed film events of the year. It suits my stereotype of the warm, haimishe Jewish grandma, setting a lavish buffet and urging you to try just a little more. It has a great track record in getting filmmakers to attend, insuring interesting introductions and lively q-and-a’s after screenings. (More than one filmmaker noted the audience’s proclivity to shout out opinions and corrections.) I’m especially prone to attend it because it’s my father’s favorite film festival, so I’m guaranteed an interested companion — no matter how much you love movies, it gets old watching them all day long all by yourself.
We saw about thirty of the 74 films (from 17 countries), mostly chosen by ease of location (the East Bay venues, the California Theatre in Berkeley, and the Grand Lake Theater and Piedmont Theater in Oakland) and time — we favored the matinees, thereby largely turning the Jewish Film Festival into the Jewish Documentary Film Festival, as it seemed that most of the daytime screenings were docs.
Not that I’m complaining. I had more than one cathartic experience caused by documentaries this year. I was completely engrossed and emotionally engaged by “Here One Day,” about the suicide of director Kathy Leichter’s mother, using her mother’s audiotapes and writings, which was brilliantly paired with a witty and moving short, “I Think This is Closest to How the Footage Looked,” about how 8mm footage of a woman’s final moments was inadvertently erased. Alain Berliner’s “First Cousin Once Removed” (showed as part of the program awarding him the Freedom of Expression Award), a patchwork of footage shot of a celebrated poet and professor as he succumbed to Alzheimer’s was powerful and disturbing.
Pairing “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” about a wealthy American Jewish couple who managed to save 50 Jewish Austrian children, with a short about the most successful and quixotic OSS mission of WWII, “The Real Inglorious Bastards,” was a perfect festival program: where else would you see these labors of love, the 63-minute “50 Children” made by a first-time director who married into the Kraus family, like the 31-minute “Bastards” an example of truth being stranger — while just as compelling — than fiction. Another swell pairing was “The Art of Spiegelman,” about the creator of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Maus,” (and occasional “New Yorker” cover artist), with the charming “Every Tuesday: A Portrait of the New Yorker Cartoonists,” filmed partly at the regular Tuesday afternoon midtown lunches held after the cartoonists drop off their proposed sketches. (Coincidentally the film that caused Spiegelman to complete Maus — because he didn’t want people to think he was influenced by Spielberg, instead of the other way around, “An American Tail,” was screened as a family matinee.)
A perfect three-doc day was the final Sunday at the beautifully-preserved Grand Lake Theater, crowded and festive screenings of “Commie Camp,” about a long-lived socialist summer camp in the Catskills, followed by “The Trials of Muhammed Ali,” and then “American Commune,” about The Farm, the longest-lived US commune, revisited by the half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican sisters who lived there as children. (The audiences at “Commie Camp” and “American Commune” included many veterans of both, and the q-and-as afterwards devolved into informal reunions.)
Of the four venues I attended, the most successful was definitely the Grand Lake, opened in 1926, not far from the beautiful Lake Merritt from which it derives its name. I hope next year the 34th Jewish Film Festival spends more than a three-day weekend there. I especially enjoyed its proximity to excellent restaurants and the Saturday Farmers Market — the day I smuggled in a whole rotisserie chicken will be a hard one to beat, both gastronomically and filmically. We tore into it while enjoying “Jerry and Me,” about a young Iranian woman’s infatuation with movies, “Before the Revolution,” about the Israeli colony in Iran before the Shah was deposed, and “Gideon’s Army,” about tireless, overworked, and underpaid public defenders. Great movies, good food — what could be better?
The day after the festival ended, I took my parents to see “Blue Jasmine” in Berkeley after a Chinese lunch up the street, trying to feel like the Jewish Film Festival hadn’t ended — a feeling of deja jew.