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The 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: A Religious Experience

The 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: A Religious Experience

After attending religiously for a number of years (pun forgivable), I realize that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival now joins the two San Francisco festivals I consider unmissable: The SF Silent Film Festival, and Noir City. Like them, it has an enthusiastic and loyal audience, some of whom see every single film on offer, made possible because the festival unspools, mostly, in one theater at a time. 

A more appropriate title, these days, might be the Bay Area Jewish Film Festival, because it travels all over: at SF’s venerable Castro Theatre, there were 11 days of screenings. Meantime, there were six days of films shown at the CineArts in Palo Alto. I attended the week-long section which followed in Berkeley’s California, followed by a three-day weekend at the glorious Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, which overlapped with three days of screenings at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.  A few special events were presented at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Rayko Photo Center in SF, and the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.

The appreciative and vocal audience lifts the experience, as does the fact that I have a built-in companion: it’s my father’s favorite film festival. I go to altogether too many movies alone, so it’s a special treat.  It does skew the schedule, however: three movies is pretty much his limit — as well as the limit of my mother’s tolerance for his absence — so rather than choosing what I see from catalogue descriptions or knowledge of the filmmakers’ work, we tend to go to the first or second movie of the day and see whatever’s on offer afterwards. Real life intrudes, too: since it’s in our hometown, we push "pause" for pre-existing Oakland A’s tickets, doctor’s appointments, and such.

Still, we managed to see 25 different programs over 10 days, and, thanks to the festival’s witty and eclectic programming, we enjoyed nearly everything we saw. Perhaps my favorite was the emotional, well-directed, and brilliantly-acted "Run Boy Run," directed by the unknown-to-me German Pepe Danquart (whose filmography includes mostly documentaries), in which a young boy survives the Holocaust in Poland through his wits, charm, and the occasional sympathetic farmer. A contemporary revelation at the end increased its power.  My father’s favorite was "Mamele," a 1938 family comedy starring the girlish Yiddish theater star Molly Picon, beautifully restored by the National Center for Jewish Film, and introduced by NCJF co-director Lisa Rivo.  "I could see that again tomorrow," my father said.

Other fiction standouts included Diane Kurys‘ typically slick and attractively-cast "For a Woman," another in her autobiographical series, starring Benoit Magimel and Nicholas Duvauchelle (both hubba-hubba, as far as I’m concerned), and the lush, pillowy Melanie Thierry. Set in Lyon just post-war, the set design and costumes were an additional pleasure (which I refuse to call guilty).  The Israeli "Funeral at Noon," about an unhappy 50s housewife (played by the compelling Hilla Vidor) stuck in a joyless marriage in the sticks, was spare and unsettling.  I liked "Super Women," about a group of cashiers, mostly Russian immigrants, who work in an Israeli supermarket, but many (including my father) found it too arty and unsettling, especially its ambiguous ending.  It was amusing to see the very modern actress, Neta Riskin, who starred in "Anywhere Else," about an Israeli girl studying in Germany who visits her fractious family in Israel, turn up as an Orthodox Jewess in "Shtisel," an Israeli nighttime TV soap opera, three episodes of which were shown. We agreed that we were hooked and would return if the festival showed more episodes, as they said they might. "Transit," which followed the travels of undocumented Filipinos in Israel, whose Hebrew-speaking children face deportation, also unsettled its audience, with its depiction of an unfeeling Israeli bureaucracy.  Israeli spies, tracking down Muslim terrorists in Buenos Aires in 1994 with dogged determination (and propulsive filmmaking) in "God’s Slave," was more satisfying.

The documentaries were typically strong.  Doug Block’s charming and funny "112 Weddings," in which he revisits a dozen of the couples whose weddings he videoed, happened to be playing on HBO the very day I saw it, which reminded me how much better (and more fun) it is to see a movie on the big screen, surrounded by laughing and engaged people, than alone in a room not-quite-fully-engaged by a small screen.  It’s the kind of movie that, afterwards, I say "I could watch another two or three hours of that stuff."  It was great to see "Father and Son," about a road trip, shot and cut by the father-and-son documentarians Marcel and Pawel Lozinski, with my own father. Two versions exist; we saw the son’s version, and agreed we wished both had been programmed, as we would have loved to have seen the father’s, also.  They got along surprisingly well, considering that the son had abandonment issues which his largely-absent father did not want to discuss. 

It was also moving to see "My Own Man," a documentary by David Sampliner that was ostensibly about becoming more manly when he was about to become a father, but was actually about dealing with his issues with his own demanding and rigid father. I had seen "Natan," a stylish investigation into the mysterious and maligned Jewish filmmaker Bernard Natan, who rescued the seminal Pathe studio, last year in Telluride, and was happy to see it again. 

Oddly, despite the ongoing unrest, there were no protesters or picket lines that we saw, unlike other years.  The only movie that touched upon the current predicament was the too-cool "Striplife," a documentary shot by Italians that followed the daily life of several inhabitants of Gaza, including a young broadcaster, some kids doing parkour, a farmer, and a soccer player. Its showing was marred by technical difficulties — a recurring problem during the first few days at the California Theatre — but its somewhat lackadaisical cinema verite style didn’t help.

I loved the haimishe, mouth-watering "The Sturgeon Queens," about the storied Russ and Daughters smoked-fish emporium (since 1914) on Houston Street, and there was what should have been the perfect after-party in an adjacent courtyard, featuring many of the delicacies we’d just seen onscreen.  The clever ones didn’t stick around for the Q & A with director Julie Cohen; I skedaddled a few minutes before it finished, so I was able to fill a plate with smoked fish and salad relatively unscathed, but once the hordes descended, they were six-deep around the central table and I left to the sounds of disgruntled whining.  (By the time I got there, the lox was only a memory.)

Plus, let’s face it, the state of Jewish deli in the Bay Area is pretty much a disgrace, despite the concerted efforts of such young bloods as Wise Sons — who, I hasten to point out, did not cater this event. I love their sincerity, but a deli that closes at 3 p.m.? Please. From the list of sponsors and contributors to the San Francisco, I learn about a new place: Shorty Goldstein’s.  It closes at 3:30 p.m., and isn’t even open on the weekend, but Bay Area Jews in search of deli have learned to take what they can get.  Luckily the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is there for their filmgoing needs! 

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Comments

julie cohen

Thanks for the great words about my film, Meredith. And i don't fault you for skipping out on the Q & A to get to the smoked fish line – a strategy, sadly, that is not possible for me at the screenings with food. Note to programmers: SAVE ME SOME LOX.
Julie Cohen, Director, Producer & Writer, The Sturgeon Queens.

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