Thursday, July 31, 2008

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 2008, Week 2

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 2008, continues into it's second week of screenings around the San Francisco Bay Area. I was fortunate enough to see quite a few programs at Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, as well as some screeners generously provided by Larsen Associates in San Francisco. Instead of my typical, daily "journal" of films, I am dividing my posting of the SFJFF into weeks. Following is what I've seen from Week 2.

Screening on Saturday, August 2nd, are an eclectic group of documentaries, or more accurately, non-scripted narratives.

A HEBREW LESSON (dirs. David Ofek, Elinor Kowarsky, Ron Rotem, Israel, 2006, 123 mins.) This is actually a five episode reality series from Israel about the process and the challenges of assimilating into the Jewish culture, as undertaken by a handful of immigrants. The cast represents a broad spectrum of backgrounds, including Russian, Chinese and Spanish. I think the experience would be easier and more rewarding if it were taken in the five episodes that it was originally formatted for. In watching it as a whole, the frustration of the cast was almost overwhelming. (Of course, I could have been over empathizing, as I have had my own "cultural disconnect" in my short-lived attempt at living in Atlanta.) Though the focus is on their lives outside of the classroom, I found the scenes inside the classroom to be the most engaging. For me, the "drama" was in how the group interacted within the common bounds of the class. Their lives outside, in which they struggle to learn the social rules of Israel, was more frustrating than engaging. In fact, as it started, I thought I was about to see a remake of Israel Horovitz's "THE PRIMARY ENGLISH CLASS", which is essentially the same subject, though much more of a comedy.

The next documentary IS a comedy about... circumcision! THE QUEST FOR THE MISSING PIECE (dir. Oded Lotan, Israel, 2007, 52 mins.) documents the debate about circumcision, featuring the director himself, a gay, Jewish man, whose partner is an "intact goy". The situation is fraught with comic possibilities! However, as humorously as director Oded Lotan handles the subject, the information provided is actually pretty enlightening about the socio-religious background of the practice. He also interviews the "new" generation of Jews who are leaving their sons intact, and actually have support groups to discuss that. The intertitles are animated, which also lends a lighter touch to a potentially hostile subject matter.

MOM, I DIDN'T KILL YOUR DAUGHTER (dir. Orna Ben Dor, Israel, 2007, 50 Mins.) This was one of two documentaries screening at Frameline 32 this year (along with SHE'S A BOY I KNEW) about the transgender transition that actually focuses as much on the families as with the subject undergoing transition. Here, the subject is from Israel and the FTM (female-to-male) transition she is making has more sociological impact, as the importance of the female in Jewish society makes the "loss" of the daughter to becoming a man even more of a hurdle for her mother to accept. (There are also some segments regarding the difficulty in changing their passports to indicate their sex change, too.) The mother is an exceptionally brave individual for her participation in this documentary, as she faces a continual negotiation of her daughter's sexual identity. She has been involved with another FTM for several years, thus they will be two males in love. This is as much about the mother's journey as it is about her daughter/son's. It can be quite gripping at times.

On Monday, August 4th, there is an opportunity to have one of those "film festival only" experiences of screening the epic documentary,
BEING JEWISH IN FRANCE (dir. Yves Jeuland, France, 2007, 185 mins.). Though originally devised as a two part television documentary, unlike A HEBREW LESSON which screened earlier in the week, this holds up to, and is actually enhanced by, experiencing the series in a single screening. It focuses on the history of Jews in France in the 20th century, starting with the Dreyfus Affair, continuing with the World Wars, the post-holocaust and then the migration occurring after France's involvement in North Africa. Each generational wave of immigrants have had to face different challenges, at the time of immigration as well as dealing with the previous generation that awaits them. So, not only are there challenges of melding into French society, but into the existing Franco-Jewish state, as well. Subsequently, the piece delivers a nearly exhaustive and fascinating overview of Euro-Judeo relationships in the 20th century. (I saw this at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which included a brief intermission.)

Wednesday, August 6th, begins with a pair of free matinées which are preceded by the same short subject, ALICE AND I (dir. Micha Wald, Belgium, 2004, 19 mins.) The premise is entertaining enough. A man, struggling in his current relationship, is trapped in a car with three meddling, older women. As fun as some of this short film is, the actual humor treads on mean-spiritedness. It is well paced, so the nineteen minutes to pop along. However, the containment within the car limits the dramatic possibilities and the exchanges become repetitive extremely quickly.

To end the day, there is a double-feature of a pair of provocative documentaries as part of the continuing retrospective of the Heymann Brothers. This program presents their latest and first films.

STALAGS - HOLOCAUST AND PORNOGRAPHY IN ISRAEL (dir. Ari Libsker, Israel, 2007, 62 mins.) Well, what could have been campy, if not a bit kinky, comes off quite academic as the film discusses the history of the fetishizing of the NAZI regime by Jews. It goes right to the point of revealing the psychological and sexual impact of the holocaust and what the role of "sex" played during the internment. Though it really is not a laughing matter, I do think that the film could be more accessible by taking a 21st century look into the matter of "fetish" and then exploring how that was expressed by holocaust survivors. The film tries to remain true to the period of the writers and survivors, without any pretense at nostalgia. It is as if it were an exceptionally painful practice that "happened back then" and bears discussing only in those terms. Whereas, in my little armchair director position, I would have hoped to make it more relevant to today's psychology. However, it does a fairly thorough job presenting what could be considered a rarely discussed, if not taboo subject.

IT KINDA SCARES ME (dir. Tomer Heymann, Israel, 2001, 60 mins.) profiles a group of at-risk teenagers and their participation in creating a theatrical event based upon their lives, under the direction of Tomer Heymann. This was Heymann's first film, but he does maintain some distance, though he is essentially the center of the piece. His coming out to the group proves to be one of the challenges that the troupe faces, amongst many other artistic, administrative and even political stumbling blocks they run up against. There is a sense of "postering" by the boys in front of the camera, and one would have hoped for more footage of the final performance itself. However, it is fairly well paced and balanced, and the exhaustive epilogue is appreciated.

The next posting will include programming from Thursday, August 7th through the closing on August 11.

Maxxxxx says
re MOM I DIDN'T KILL YOUR DAUGHTER: [Maxxxxx is sexually questioning.]
re BEING JEWISH IN FRANCE: "Is it bedtime?" (too long for Maxxxxx)
re ALICE AND I: "I love you."
re STALAG...: "Wooooo!"
re IT KINDA SCARES ME: "Shuddup!"

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