'Mabul' (The Flood) is a crisply photographed, well-acted drama about a family on the skids.

Voices Converge at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Michael Fox July 22, 2011

Walk into a dark theater during the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and you never know what language you’ll hear. Hebrew and German are good bets, but it could be Yiddish or French, or Spanish or English. A tad more than most years, the dominant accent at this year’s festival, which begins tonight at the Castro and runs through August 8 at venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Rafael and Palo Alto, is American. The mix is something you’d find at a Berkeley deli: a hunk of New York, a slice of Chicago and a hefty helping of the Bay Area.

The mustard is cut by the no-nonsense baritone of Kirk Douglas, who receives the 2011 SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award prior to Sunday’s screening of Spartacus (directed by the renowned Bronx Jew, Stanley Kubrick). Douglas isn’t being honored for his career as an actor so much as for his contributions as a producer, particularly on this Roman epic: He insisted that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be credited, striking a bold and brave blow against the prevailing prejudice and fear.

A younger but equally fierce Douglas propels The Juggler (1953), a little-known studio film depicting the travails of a haunted German survivor of the Holocaust in the new state of Israel. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, the year before he made The Caine Mutiny and a few years before he ran afoul of the blacklist.

The festival looked to contemporary Israel for the opening night film, Mabul (The Flood), a crisply photographed, well-acted drama about a family on the skids. Guy Nattiv (co-director of the 2008 opener, Strangers) gets a little carried away with the water metaphor and the Noah allusions, but Ronit Elkabetz’s pained portrayal of a stressed-out working mother with an autistic child is an astringent antidote to the movie’s sentimental impulses.

Emotion, along with music, drives the powerful closing-night selection. 100 Voices: A Journey Home is a deftly organized record of an ambitious tour of Poland by a boatload of cantors (ordained clergy who lead the singing of prayers) from around the world. A roots journey and a concert film rolled into one, this is one heartening documentary.

Poland is a featured player in this year’s festival, highlighted by the selection of Jan Kidawa-Blonski’s screw-tightening political drama Little Rose as the Centerpiece film. Set immediately after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Polish-Jewish dissidents are under more suspicion than usual by the government, this adult story revolves around a naïve beauty (a performance of exceptional range by Magdalena Boczarska, scheduled to attend with the director) who’s goaded by her oafish secret-police boyfriend into befriending, seducing and betraying an older intellectual. Her gradual change of heart, and mind, puts everyone at risk. Such is the price of education in a totalitarian society.

Closer to home, and on a much lighter note, the profoundly witty writer and producer Mike Reiss presents an animated (in both senses of the word) program dubbed Jews in Toons: An Uproarious Evening with Krusty, Kyle and Other Favorites. Reiss screens a trio of classic Jewish-themed episodes from Family Guy, South Park and The Simpsons, then takes the mic to reveal the truth about the Jewish conspiracy in Hollywood to erode American values and pave the way for the Communist takeover. (Oops, I’m still stuck in the ’60s, or the ’50s.)

Jewish American identity is a major theme of the SFJFF, especially this year. Local filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman set the pace with their hot-button first-person doc, Between Two Worlds, which explores the chasm between Left and Right, and Baby Boomers and Generation Y (or is it Z?), especially over Israel. Tiffany Shlain’s Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death and Technology is more philosophical than political regarding identity issues, and its pop-culture consciousness gives it broad appeal.

Bay Area audiences need no introduction to Crime After Crime, Yoav Shamir’s irresistible exposé of California’s injustice system. A pair of real estate lawyers, including an Orthodox Jew, fight to free an African American woman serving a cruel and unjust sentence. Heinous wrongdoing is also at the heart of Standing Silent, which recounts the Baltimore Jewish Times’s gutsy reporting of a certified shanda (scandal and embarrassment), namely child abuse by some of that city’s most respected Orthodox Jews.

Smack on the line between good Jews and bad Jews is the brilliant chess player profiled in Bobby Fischer Against the World. The doc, which premiered at Sundance and debuted in June on HBO, hones in on the high point of Fischer’s career, the 1972 championship matches with Boris Spassky. Director Liz Garbus never pierces her subject’s enigmatic, paranoid core, unfortunately, and his anti-Semitic ravings in his last years remain a painful mystery.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Joseph Dorman’s prosaic biography of the progenitor of Yiddish literature, aspires to bridge the 19th and 21st centuries with limited success. A child of the shtetl, Aleichem became enormously popular with Yiddish speakers everywhere, notably the immigrants who packed New York’s Lower East Side and whose children (and grandchildren, including this writer) adapted, assimilated and redefined Jewish identity. As a historical, artistic and emotional frame of reference, the festival revives Tevye (1939), the great Yiddish actor-writer-director Maurice Schwartz’s portrayal of Aleichem’s most popular character.

A couple of young filmmakers will bring that taste of Chicago I alluded to. Ben Berkowitz’s indie drama Polish Bar follows a 20-something Orthodox Jew and wannabe disc jockey torn between family expectations (he’s supposed to take over the jewelry store from his aging uncle, Judd Hirsch) and an illicit, big-dollar score. (Shades of the Jesse Eisenberg flick, Holy Rollers, I know.) The stakes may be higher in Josh Freed’s personal documentary, Five Weddings and a Felony—it is real life, after all—but the mood is assuredly lighter.

The challenging mix of American films is in keeping with Executive Director Peter Stein’s unflagging fascination with issues that affect and arouse American Jews, and the way in which movies provide essential vehicles for individual thought and public debate. This marks the eighth and last festival for Stein, who announced he’s stepping down to return to filmmaking and other projects. He has brought a rare mix of intellect, diplomacy and taste to the job.

He and program director Jay Rosenblatt have also scouted a daunting number of works from international directors and festivals, needless to say. The higher-profile titles this year are from France, which has emerged as a major source of Jewish-themed films. The willfully provocative, sexy and smart screwball comedy The Names of Love (also opening July 29 in theaters) tops the list, although more people are undoubtedly aware of Sarah’s Key, adapted from a popular novel and starring Kristin Scott Thomas. The drama (opening August 5) cuts between a modern-day Paris-based journalist and the infinitely more compelling storyline of a family arrested with thousands of other Jews by the gendarmes in 1942.

That loathsome chunk of history is also the focus of The Roundup, Rose Bosch’s French hit starring Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent. (In non-SFJFF-related news, look for Yvan Attal, the Jewish actor and husband of Charlotte Gainsbourg, in the French thriller Rapt, opening Friday.)

Israel, of course, provides a sizable number of SFJFF programs. Nir Bergman (whose debut, Broken Wings, inspired comparisons with Todd Solondz) returns with Intimate Grammar, a story of a ’60s boy finding his own odd path. Eytan Fox (The Bubble) is represented by the wonderfully art-directed and soundtracked TV miniseries Mary Lou, whose protagonist is a young gay boy looking for his mother and finding a whole other world.

Another out filmmaker, Tomer Heymann, brings his terrific first-person doc, The Queen Has No Crown (which sneak previewed at Frameline). Delicate but unflinching, the film limns the gulf between Heymann’s parents’ hard-fought dreams for Israel and today’s reality—an occupation of the Palestinian territories that won’t end, and their sons moving to America.

If you missed Precious Life at the Mill Valley Film Festival last fall or on HBO, here’s another chance to catch TV journalist-turned-filmmaker Shlomi Eldar’s discomfiting entry in an increasingly endangered genre: the can’t-we-all-get-along Israeli-Palestinian documentary. Israeli doctors save a Palestinian baby’s life, but old antagonisms die hard in the Middle East.

Germany, usually a prime SFJFF subject, finds itself on the margins this year. Dani Levy (Go For Zucker!) fans, as well as those who savor movies about moviemaking and moviemakers, are directed to his latest foray into the comedy of discomfort, Life Is Too Long.

In an act of criminal irresponsibility, I’ve saved arguably the best for last. Britta Wauer’s remarkably perceptive and entertaining documentary, In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, is a mature yet quirky portrait of the enormous graveyard located in the former East Berlin. This is a film about human nature, history and, above all, life, and prompts comparison to Heddy Honigmann’s brilliant riff on Paris’s Pére Lachaise Cemetery, Forever.

The cross-section of people that Wauer iconoclastically assembles in In Heaven Underground possess a multitude of accents, it should be noted. But they speak a common language of humanity and renewal that is especially welcome at this point in history.