The programmers of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival assuredly don’t possess the gifts of prescience or (heaven forbid) divine inspiration. If they did, and had foreseen the death and destruction now taking place in Gaza, they wouldn’t have included a spotlight on comedy in this year’s lineup. There is merit to counter-programming, sure, but no one has ever described the SFJFF, which runs July 24 through August 10 all over the Bay Area, as a haven for summer escapism. Indeed, the bulk of the thirty-fourth edition comprises the usual array of probing Israeli dramas, U.S. social-issue documentaries and Holocaust-tinted features and docs from around the globe.
The San Francisco event is the original and still the largest Jewish film festival in the U.S., and (like the New York Jewish Film Festival in January) attracts a majority of movies at the beginning of their festival and exhibition lives. Lacey Schwartz’s long-in-production first-person doc Little White Lie receives its world premiere in the closing night slot, preceded by the debuts of terrific new works by veteran Bay Area documentarians Abby Ginzberg (Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa), Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider (Havana Curveball) and Judith Montell and Emmy Scharlatt (In the Image: Palestinian Women Capture the Occupation). Roberta Grossman unveils her latest, Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force, while John Lollos’ Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem anchors the festival’s tribute to this year’s Freedom of Expression Award-winner. (Little-known fact: The beloved 90-year-old actor and singer guest-starred in a 1965 Gunsmoke episode opposite Lee Majors.) Yiddish culture is also remembered and celebrated with the California premiere of the new restoration of Joseph Green’s Mamele (1938), starring the immortal, multitalented Molly Picon.
With the Gaza war front and center, one of the most intriguing aspects of this SFJFF is a firsthand opportunity to see (and feel) how context alters the viewing experience. Although the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations was well known—especially to American Jews and Arab Americans—long before the brazen murders of teenagers ignited the current conflagration, the images on the nightly news represent an elevated level of lethal hatred and civilian victimization. It’s inevitable that the opening-night crowd for The Green Prince, Nadav Schirman’s tense, expertly crafted documentary about a Palestinian informant (the eldest son of a Hamas leader) and his Israeli handler, won’t be nearly as comforted by the duo’s profound, unexpected friendship as the attendees who gave the film an audience award at Sundance.
Another Sundance awardee (for documentary editing and use of animation), Edet Belzberg’s Watchers of the Sky relentlessly challenges our moral character—on an individual, collective and national level—from the first frame to the last. An inquiry into the chronic unwillingness to stop and to prosecute genocide, the doc’s perspective extends from Turkey to Sudan. A Viennese Jew named Raphael Lemkin is the forgotten hero of the piece; obsessed with mass murder long before he was displaced and exiled by the Holocaust, Lemkin coined the word “genocide” and drove himself to an early grave lobbying UN ambassadors to pass a legally binding charter. So how will Belzberg’s reckoning of international apathy play in a Jewish festival setting? (Lest anyone willfully misunderstand, I am not accusing Israel of genocide but acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling Jewish compassion and activism with Israel’s actions.)
Peter Cohn’s Holy Land, another world premiere, successfully dodges the current-events pitfall. The doc ricochets among a half-dozen Arab and Jewish residents of the West Bank over a year’s time, cataloguing the integration of politics and daily life. By stepping into the stream for an extended though finite period, Cohn emerges with a mosaic that evokes the fluidity and dynamism of the situation rather than an agenda film with tidy conclusions.
Although it’s set on an Israeli military base in the middle of nowhere, I suspect Talya Lavie’s wonderfully droll and vicious feature debut, Zero Motivation, won’t pick up any unwanted associations with the war. Focusing on the bored, disaffected women conscripts relegated to pushing papers in a claustrophobic office, the movie (which debuted at Tribeca, along with another SFJFF entry, Nancy Kates’ Regarding Susan Sontag) is (slightly) more concerned with female friendship and rivalry than “army intelligence,” widespread misogyny and mythical patriotism. Zeitgeist Films has booked Zero Motivation at New York’s Film Forum in December.
The SFJFF spotlight on comedy also includes El Critico, a lightly likable sendup of romantic comedies from first-time director Hernán Guerschuny. A gloomy, divorced Buenos Aires film critic, who no longer even enjoys the waiters at his favorite café ritually quoting from his dismissive reviews, falls for a woman he encounters looking for a new apartment. Blending film-buff jokes with the predictable and pleasurable parameters of meet-cute love stories (which the jaded hero loathes above all else), this self-referential (and barely Jewish) movie is amusing but doesn’t live up to the promise of its inspired opening reels.
Aficionados of the filmmaking process and film history, with all its arbitrariness and heartache, are rewarded with a pair of documentaries made by Swedish and Irish television. Wiktor Ericsson’s The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Pictures (listed in the festival program as A Life in Dirty Movies) is an unexpectedly touching, insightful and resonant treatment of a sensationalist subject. In a career that began in the early 1960s and lasted three decades, Joseph W. Sarno wrote and directed dozens of soft-core films (mostly in 35mm black-and-white) in New York and Stockholm that explored women’s roles, insecurities and desires while exposing a little skin. Titles like The Swap and How They Make It and Confessions of a Young American Housewife were designed to lure the raincoat crowd and adventurous couples (before hard-core and VHS wiped out the grindhouse circuit), but the actual films (as John Waters, among others, attests) were the work of a psychologically astute director with a splendid eye and the confidence to direct professional and non-pro actors. Peggy Steffans, an actress and the filmmaker’s wife, protector and champion, gives us a sense of what it was like in the ‘60s for a Jewish girl to defy her affluent parents and pick her own path.
While Sarno made a few bucks, felt the affection of the crowd at film festival tributes in his later years and was recognized with a lengthy New York Times obituary, Bernard Natan was degraded and erased from film history. David Cairns and Paul Duane’s Natan (which played Telluride last fall) strives to restore the reputation of an early and passionate advocate of film. In 1905, Natan left his native Romania for Paris, where he excelled at the technical and mechanical aspects of filmmaking. He eventually produced more than 65 films, including some of France’s greatest silent movies, and turned Pathé into a profitable, prestigious and innovative studio. But Natan’s contributions were nullified by Pathé’s depression-fueled bankruptcy and, in a climate of rising anti-Semitism, he was indicted and convicted of fraud and further humiliated by the resurrection of a 1911 conviction for making erotic films (which had been expunged on account of his brave service in World War I).
Natan was imprisoned, eventually handed to the Nazis and shipped to his death in Auschwitz in 1943. If his saga ended there, it would be agonizing enough. But exactly half a century later, a Ohio University professor published an article asserting that Natan acted in early pornographic films. Cairns and Duane deserve some kind of award for their remarkably diligent and often-inspired work to countermand this claim, as well as to revive Natan’s extensive contributions to the French film industry.