The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Michael Fox July 19, 2007

As recently as a decade ago, the various local “identity” film festivals provoked minimal interest and sold few tickets beyond their niche constituencies. Those days are long gone: A full 40 percent of the audience of the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival is now comprised of non-Asians. The S.F. Jewish Film Festival reports 25 to 30 percent of attendees aren’t Jewish. What’s going on? For one thing, savvy moviegoers outside the target demographic have learned to scout the niche fests’ programs for films that premiered to raves at Berlin or Cannes (too late, that is, to make it into the SF International Film Festival). The Jewish Film Festival specifically benefits from broad and urgent local interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which manifests itself as an insatiable appetite for documentaries from the region. The biggest factor, though, may be the number of interfaith and interracial relationships in the Bay Area. Looking for insights into your partner’s culture or family? Tag along with them to a festival flick. All of which is to say you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the SF Jewish Film Festival.

With a nod to the numerous activists, agitators, and political junkies who make the Bay Area special, I start my SFJFF overview in what used to be called the Middle East. The impromptu theme of this year’s documentaries could be summarized as Revising Misperceptions. Take the program of “Film Fanatic” and “Yoel, Israel and the Pashkevils,” which takes us inside Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community. It was trendy for a while to describe the inevitable civil war between secular and religious Israelis as a bigger threat to the country’s long-term survival than its external enemies. Some of the ultra-religious do not recognize the state of Israel, for they believe its existence violates the circumstances required for the coming of the Messiah. (I discovered this for myself during a trip to Israel in 1974, when religious Jews welcomed Richard Nixon’s visit with signs imploring the U.S. to make Israel the 51st state.)

The aforementioned double bill shows us a witty, rebellious side of the ultra-Orthodox we’ve never seen. “Film Fanatic” is an amusing yet poignant portrait of an ambitious filmmaker in a community where cinemas, TVs and DVD players are banned. Yehuda Grovais makes action films with a religious message for the direct-to-DVD market (his customers watch on their computers, a loophole I don’t pretend to understand), but he aspires to move beyond genre flicks to true cinema. “Yoel, Israel and the Pashkevils” spotlights two printers of “pashkevils,” polemical black-and-white broadsheets of “news,” arguments and accusations pasted up on walls. Israel and Yoel are both anti-Zionists, but to differing degrees. To spend time with Israel, an incorrigible joke-maker who irritates many of his fellow Haredi (religious Jews) by appearing on the evil medium of television, is to realize that the stereotype is a myth.

The same could be said of “Hot House,” Shimon Dotan’s valuable survey of Palestinians serving sentences in Israeli prisons. From thoughtful future leaders to sociopath suicide bombers, the prisoners command our attention. Like a lot of docs about the conflict, “Hot House” delivers several blows to the viewer’s biases and sympathies — regardless of which side you fall on. I also recommend, sight unseen, Ido Haar’s “9 Star Hotel,” which gets up-close and personal with a group of Palestinian laborers trying to make a living in Israel.

In recent years, Israeli narrative filmmakers have shifted their focus from war and politics to the “normal” dysfunction of everyday life. “The Bubble,” the seductive new film from Eytan Fox (“Walk on Water”), weaves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a gay and straight, 20-something pop culture story set in the boho-yuppie part of Tel Aviv. (The movie plays just once, in Berkeley, then returns for a theatrical run in September; it likewise played once in June at the SF International LGBT Film Festival as the Centerpiece film.) The opening night film, “Sweet Mud,” is a not-so-nostalgic look back at a troubled year in an adolescent kibbutznik’s life. Dror Shaul’s pointed fable can be seen as a metaphor for Israel’s loss of idealism and innocence. Well, either that or he’s working out a long-held grudge. In the delectably glossy and borderline melodramatic “Three Mothers,” Dina Zvi-Riklis follows Sephardic sisters from their childhood in Egypt through their adulthood in Israel. An intimate family epic with a great soundtrack (one of the sisters is a singer), the film offers a Hollywood-style blend of luscious production values and thick emotions.

Women are also the primary audience for “Gorgeous,” a glib French comedy whose ostensible subject is the female quest for sex, love and fulfillment. Shallow, frantic and unmemorable, although well-acted, it’s the closest thing to pure escapism in the entire festival. “Bad Faith,” another superficial French feature, starts out as a portrait of a blissful love affair between two assimilated Parisians, a Muslim man and a Jewish woman. But when Clara gets pregnant, their relationship implodes. Actor-director-co-writer Roschdy Zem misses every opportunity to expose viewers to the fine points of either Islam or Judaism, opting for a broad, accessible and ultimately farcical approach. Another problem is that the actors are too old for the roles; we could accept “Bad Faith” as an interfaith “Knocked Up,” but not when the main characters are in their late 20s.

For top-of-the-line entertainment, the sublime music doc “Between Two Notes” beats all challengers. Filmmaker Florence Strauss finds the most marvelous musicians in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Tel Aviv who sing and play variations of Arabic music — call them Mesopotamian blues brothers (with a sister or two). There’s a lot of deep talk about half-notes and geography and sociology that’s perfectly interesting but didn’t stick with me, although the profoundly soulful music sure did.

While every musician in “Between Two Notes” has seamlessly synthesized his or her identity, history and artistic goals, Yasmin Levy is torn between the past and the future. The impassioned Israeli singer and subject of “Ladino — 500 Years Young” has been successful reviving the Ladino songs that her father performed decades ago, but her audience is aging and disappearing. (Ladino is the language spoken by the descendants of the Spanish or Sephardic Jews forced to convert or flee during the long years of the Inquisition.) At the same time, Levy wants to infuse the Ladino melodies with the elements of flamenco that she loves. Is she following her muse, or abandoning her responsibility as the last standard-bearer of a dying culture?

Identity, of course, is the defining characteristic of the Jewish Film Festival. (Guilt, that old stand-by, is so ten years ago.) South America is strewn with pockets of Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Jews, the children of 19th and 20th Century immigrants whose families have practiced their religion for centuries. But what of the descendants of the exiled Spanish Jews, who concealed their identities and observed their rituals in secret? They can’t trace their Jewish ancestry, and aren’t recognized by the Jewish establishment. The wrenching documentary “The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America” follows a handful of these men and women as they go about converting to Judaism.

Jewish identity is by no means central, however, to the strongest film in the festival outside of “Hot House.” When 29-year-old Shlomo Shir was diagnosed with cancer, he kept his camcorder in hand through the long, painful ordeal. “Mr. Cortisone, Happy Days” which takes its title from the painkiller that pushes the Israeli filmmaker into stretches of a neither-here-nor-there limbo, is one of the least narcissistic first-person docs you’ll ever see. “Sicko” it’s not, although Shir has an excellent sense of humor, for this isn’t an exposé of medical care so much as a portrait of a psyche under enormous pressure. It’s a universal subject, explored and expressed through a mix of confession, poetry, rage and remarkable artistry. “Mr. Cortisone, Happy Days” is a must-see for devotees — Jewish or otherwise — of hard-hitting filmmaking.

The S.F. Jewish Film Festival runs July19-26 at the Castro in San Francisco, July 28-Aug. 4 at the Roda in Berkeley, July 28-Aug. 2 at the Aquarius in Palo Alto and Aug. 4-6 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.