Crossing borders: Simone Bitton's harrowing doc Rachel, which plays the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, investigates the circumstances surrounding Rachel Corrie's death in Gaza.

Social Justice and the S.F. Jewish Film Festival

Michael Fox July 22, 2009

At first blush, this year looks a lot like last year in the extended Jewish community. Israel’s draining occupation of the West Bank and incursions into Gaza continue unabated, while Hamas ratchets its influence in the Palestinian street. The specter of an Iran with nuclear capabilities edges closer, providing ammo for Israel’s center-right supporters. Closer to home, the deep recession has American Jews as nervous as their neighbors. Meanwhile, a tentpole of 20th-century Jewish identity, the Holocaust, recedes another step into the fog of history.

With all this uneasiness, it’s no wonder that Bernie Madoff’s gargantuan fraud, as devastating as it was and is, was embraced by late-night TV hosts, New Yorker cartoonists and corner-deli kibitzers as comic fodder. These days, you take your laughs where you can find them.

Yet one senses some rustling in the world order. The main source of hope is President Obama’s active engagement in the tense Middle East logjam, and early indications that he’s playing a kind of hardball with Israel that his predecessor waved off. But experience always trumps optimism when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, so the only realistic response is wait and see.

The annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 23-Aug. 10 in S.F., Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Rafael) arrives amid this jumble of uncertainties with an expansive program spotlighting the Jewish tradition of social justice and human rights. The lineup also includes, paradoxically, a number of titles (Adam, Empty Nest) about assimilated Jews whose heritage barely informs their day-to-day lives. This apparent schizophrenia is simply the occupational hazard of presenting a dauntingly broad survey of the contemporary international Jewish experience. Fest attendees decide and discover for themselves where they plug in—with frequently surprising results.

The subversion of expectations begins opening night with the Australian coming-of-age fable Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueberger. Under the influence of a hip new friend (Keisha Castle-Hughes of Whale Rider), the titular misfit surreptitiously trades private for public school. The lovely production design is a plus, though it can’t make up for a flurry of less-than-believable plot turns. The implausibility of the Israeli serio-comedy A Matter of Size, however, provides much of its charm and laughs. The Centerpiece Film revolves around the ample gut of a big man who sheds his frustration and low self-esteem by taking up sumo wrestling. Veering between audacious sight gags and conventional rom-com, the movie manages to be both political incorrect and unabashedly sweet (albeit not in the same moment).

Aviva Kempner, whose The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg was a valuable chronicle of a key slice of the American Jewish experience, is honored with this year’s Freedom of Expression Award and the local premiere of her latest diligently researched documentary. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg profiles the largely forgotten radio and TV pioneer Gertrude Berg, a writer-actor-producer who invented the sitcom. The Goldbergs (four episodes from the vaults screen in a separate program) wasn’t just entertainment; it served as a model for Jews and other immigrants bent on assimilating into American society. (Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg opens Aug. 7 in S.F. and Berkeley.)

Assimilation is still a work-in-progress for some groups, but for Jews it’s darn near complete. Max Mayer’s genuine and winning Adam (also beginning its S.F. theatrical run Aug. 7) imagines an unorthodox New York romance between a fellow with Asperger’s syndrome (Hugh Dancy) and a 20-something woman (Rose Byrne) whose Jewishness, shall we say, is not central to the story. The same can be said of Victoria Day, an understated Canadian yarn propelled (so to speak) by a high school hockey player’s embryonic sense of guilt and morality. The movie manages to hold attention despite its passive, uncommunicative protagonist (whose parents are Russian Jewish emigres), but its non-ending is a huge letdown.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe and The Yes Men Fix the World "star" Jewish men with extraordinary social consciences. Without seeing either film, I can’t say how their heritage or upbringing influenced them. But it is consistent with American Jewish thinking that responsibility accompanies opportunity and success.

That admirable philosophy is hardly the exclusive province of Jews, of course. Washington-state activist Rachel Corrie died in Gaza in 2003 trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian home. Simone Bitton’s harrowing doc Rachel investigates the circumstances surrounding the horrific event, to sobering effect. Corrie’s mother is slated to attend the July 25 screening; the event has riled some segments of the local Jewish community. [Editor’s note: The backlash is being actively counter-protested in a letter-writing campaign of support for the film and its speaker.]

Another film that bridges Israel and the U.S. is Yoav Shamir’s endlessly provocative Defamation. The Israeli doc maker isn’t interested in anti-Semitism, per se, but the Jewish response—which he usually perceives as over-reaction. Slated for a fall theatrical release, the film is also of interest as an example of a filmmaker eschewing the illusion of objectivity, challenging his interviewees and inserting himself into the discussion.

The social justice and human rights theme also pervades a pair of eye-opening Israeli docs. Ada Ushpiz’s Desert Brides exposes the plight of Bedouin women whose husbands take second wives. This revelatory feature-length film is repetitious yet not overlong; the accumulation of betrayals and humiliations has a visceral effect. Shai Carmeli-Pollak’s deeply humane Refugees spotlights another overlooked and powerless minority. Families fleeing the violence in Darfur and Sudan are jailed or deported by Egypt, so thousands have crossed the border illegally into Israel. Although the Jewish state has a particular empathy for refugees fleeing murderous regimes (countless European Jews were unable to obtain entry visas from various foreign embassies before and during World War II, and died as a result), it is largely unable and unwilling to deal with the logistics, expense and ramifications of granting asylum to more than a few hundred Africans.

Eager for more from the thriving Israeli cinema? The picaresque family drama Zrubavel offers a glimpse of Ethiopians blending (with predictably mixed results) into Israeli culture, while the fraught psychological thriller Seven Minutes in Heaven homes in on a woman one year after she was nearly killed with her boyfriend in a bus bombing. Zion and his Brother (also in line to open in the fall) is a hard-hitting debut about teenage working-class brothers faced with an acute moral dilemma. And Raphael Nadjari’s three-and-a-half-hour A History of Israeli Cinema covers the waterfront for those who want to go deep.

The breadth of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival is sufficient to encompass an animated film that opened Sundance last January (Mary and Max, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette delivering the vocal performances) and the indefatigable Peter Forgacs’ latest excavation of Hungarian home movies shot before and during World War II (I Am Von Hofler). The veteran Argentine director Daniel Burman (Lost Embrace) continues his exploration of middle-class Jewish life in Buenos Aires with Empty Nest, the saga of a couple whose marriage is fragmenting now that the kids are grown and gone.

Two of the festival’s strongest entries—-my apologies for burying their praises until now—are first-rate period sagas from Eastern Europe. Jiri Chlumsky’s Broken Promise looks back at the Holocaust through the Slovak eyes of an innocent, soccer-loving tenager who emerges from the camps and the war as a tough, uncompromising fighter. Broken Promise will put you in mind, at different points, of Europa, Europa and The Pianist, which says more about the arbitrariness of fate during wartime than filmic influence.

The Gift to Stalin begins in 1949 with another Jewish child, several years younger, smuggled with the corpses off a transport heading from Moscow to Stalin’s work camps. Taken in by a ramshackle group of Kazakhs and exiles living in a rural nowhere, Sasha encounters a father figure, a gang of friends, dictatorial cruelty and his own cunning and resourcefulness. The Gift to Stalin, like Broken Promise and countless other titles in this year’s SFJFF, is about acclimating to the wider world without sacrificing one’s identity, values or history—or, alternatively, applying one’s singular character and abilities to the greater good. The Jewish sage Hillel said it best, in his succinct koan: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?"

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