Instead of delving into a slew of DVD press screeners for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this year, I decided I needed to be there in person, as much as possible. By this point, after Frameline, the SF Silent Film Festival and (my unreported) dozen or so screeners for the SF IndieFest Horror Fest (aka Another Hole in the Head), not to mention reacquainting myself with Matthew Barney's seven-plus hour CREMASTER CYCLE, all within a month of each other, I got a bit burnt out. But after last year's commotion at the SFJFF, and due to the number of live performances scheduled this year, I felt I really wanted to attend, live and as freshly as possible. Here are my highlights from the first week of the SFJFF, as it opens at the Castro, before moving on to Berkeley, Marin and parts beyond, and returning to San Francisco at the SF Jewish Community Center.
Opening Night began with a traditional review of festival trailers. This year's trailer is actually stood up pretty well against the collection. Introductory comments were presented by Dana Doron, President of the Board, who in turn introduced a corporate sponsor. This was perhaps the only unfortunately dull section of the program, until Doron introduced Executive Director, Peter Stein and the new Program Director, Jay Rosenblatt. Peter is always a hoot to watch and listen to as a speaker! Jay Rosenblatt appeared a bit nervous in his debut (as well as displaying a surprising tenor of a speaking voice) as he introduced the opening night film.
SAVIORS IN THE NIGHT (dir. Ludi Boeken, France/Germany, 2009, 100 mins.)
The film follows the true story of Jewish refugees who were successfully hidden from the Nazi regime by fellow Germans. Yes, I know it sounds like I just gave away a HUGE spoiler, however, it works as wells as a study of the relationships between the regime, the faithful and those who were attempting to survive. There is a little girl in the cast, who thankfully is not asked to cross the line into precociousness or "cuteness", but has been expertly directed to be overwhelmed the situation. The mothers of the farm family as well as the refugees are both wonderfully portrayed and give riveting performances. Though it could be dangerously called a "happy holocaust film", it is a relief (as well as a choice opening night selection) to pick a film that presents hope in the human condition under the worst of circumstances. Following the film, the woman whose life it was based on, Marga Spiegel (who received an exceptionally warm standing ovation), director Ludi Boeken and principal actor Lia Hoensbroech were present for an in depth interview with Mr. Rosenblatt and a smattering of audience Q&A. (Next screenings: Sat, July 31 2010, 6:45pm Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square; Sat, August 7 2010, 7:00pm, The Roda Theatre @ Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Mon, August 9 2010, 6:15pm, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center)
HUNGRY HEARTS (dir. E. Mason Hopper, USA, 1922, 80 min) This fairly melodramatic silent film was accompanied by an enthusiastic, if not nearly psychedelic score composed by Ethan Miller (Howlin’ Rain, Comets on Fire) performed by the Moab Strangers, which formed specifically for this project, including Bay Area psychedelic rock and folk heroes Matt Baldwin, Utrillo Kushner (Colossal Yes, Comets on Fire), Joel Robinow (Drunk Horse). I found the combination of the score and the on-screen histrionics of newly arrived Jewish immigrants faced with the injustices of settling in New York City, combined perfectly, particularly during the climatic meltdown scene, at which time a portion of the audience (including myself) erupted in spontaneous applause. (In fact, I had the same euphoric feeling I have when watching Bill Morrison's DECASIA with Michael Gordon's score.) Unfortunately, it was a one-time only performance for this festival.
ANITA (dir. Marcos Carnevale, 2009, Argentina, 104 mins.) This was featured as the Centerpiece Film of the San Francisco portion of the festival and features one of the most charming and warm performances of the festival, by Alejandra Manzo, who is living with Down Syndrome. (She was present for the Q&A.) After the Jewish neighborhood suffers a bombing, 'Anita' finds herself wandering lost in the city and proceeds on a Candide-like series of episodes. The film does tread treacherously into 'made-for-tv' melodrama, but it is rescued nearly single handedly by Ms. Manzo's surprisingly uncloying and sincere performance. (Next screenings: Sun, August 1 2010, 6:30pm, Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square; Tue, August 3 2010, 6:30pm, The Roda Theatre, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
THE "SOCALLED" MOVIE (dir. Garry Beitel, 2010, Canada, 87 mins.) Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin): Frankly, I can not describe this biographic documentary of musician, rapper, composer, magician, filmmaker and visual artist, who calls himself "Socalled" (aka Josh Dolgin) better than the program notes: "...Blasting through the boundaries that separate different cultures, eras and generations, Socalled creates a wholly unique sound combining klezmer, funk, soul and hip-hop. Not too shabby for a nice Jewish boy from Montreal. Socalled is a musical alchemist, always looking for the next old thing to make new again, whether it’s introducing funk trombone legend Fred Wesley (of James Brown’s famous band, the J.B.’s) or inspiring 1950s lounge pianist Irving Fields to pen a new hit song. Shot partly in Socalled’s Montreal neighborhood, where Hasidic Jews and hipsters crowd the sidewalks, and following him on tour through New York, France and an emotionally spiritual trip back to his ancestral home of the Ukraine, The “Socalled” Movie is a dynamic, kaleidoscopic portrait of an iconoclastic artist at the peak of his powers." 'Socalled' was present for a short concert after the screening in San Francisco, and his charm and joy was infectious!
It was accompanied by the short subject, MAURICE AT THE WORLD'S FAIR (dir. Spike Jonez, 2010, US, 4 mins.), which relates a childhood memory of Maurice Sendak exacting some revenge against his big sister, featuring Catherine Keener in an array of roles in the dramatic recreation. I love her!
(Next screenings: Sat, August 7 2010, 9:15pm, The Roda Theatre, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
A pair of semi-short subjects are screening together, which feature the Holocaust survival stories of two very different, but similarly strong women. INGELORE (dir. Frank Stiefel, 2009, USA, 40 mins.) focuses on Ingelore Herz Honigstein, who was born deaf and narrates in speech and sign the harrowing events leading up to her immigration to America from Nazi Germany. "Frank Stiefel’s portrait of his mother is both a loving tribute and a remarkable feat of compressed storytelling."
SURVIVING HITLER: A LOVE STORY (dir. John-Keith Wasson, 2010, USA, 65 mins.) Tells a similar story, however its subject, Jutta Cords is an exceptionally verbose interview subject. Her story of the romance with a German soldier, which ends up involved in the "Valkyrie" project to assassinate Hitler, is what Hollywood dramas are made of. It is a riveting story told by a riveting speaker.
Both directors were present, as well as Ingelore Herz Honigstein, who proved to be quite the 'witness' during her public appearance.
(Next screenings: Wed, August 4 2010, 2:15pm The Roda Theatre, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre - Free Admission)
BUDRUS (dir. Julia Bacha, 2009, USA, 82 mins.) This film is currently becoming an audience and jury favorite documentary on the festival circuit and appears to be Oscar bound. It is both an infuriating, yet in the end an immensely moving document of a peaceful resistance movement that took place in the Palenstinian West Bank against the Israeli attempt to surround the village of Budrus with a wall. The movement is led by Ayed Morrar, who successfully involves the politically far flung factions of the village, as well as involving the eager female citizens. The film also has a great deal of footage and interviews with the Israeli soldiers who were involved in this helpless face down. I was truly surprised by how moved I was by the achievement that Morrar's peace movement (or as the producer describes him: "the Ghandi of the Middle East") was able and continues to influence the occupation of the West Bank. (Next screenings: Sun, August 1 2010, 6:45pm, The Roda Theatre, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
A FILM UNFINISHED (dir. Yael Hersonski, 2009, Israel, 89 mins.) This is a nearly painful visual experience of the recovery and restoration of a lost "documentary" from the Third Reich which portrays the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. It was incomplete, so director Hersonski proceeds to attempt to piece it together in an attempt to decipher not only the propoganda behind the piece, but also reveals some truly tragic scenes of treatment. She has also gathered some of the survivors who actually appear in the film and/or were witnesses to the staging of some of the scenes. She also was able to obtain the diaries of the "mayor" of the ghetto, which describes his disgust in being involved in the production's creation. It is nearly as painful to watch the participants watch the film, as it is to see the scenes of the deaths in the streets of the ghetto. A particularly sobering experience. (Next screenings: Sat, July 31 2010, 4:15pm, Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square; Sun, August 1 2010, 4:15pm, The Roda Theatre @ Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Sat, August 7 2010, 4:45pm, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center)
THE KLEZMATICS: ON HOLY GROUND (dir. Erik Anjou, 2010, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Poland, USA, Color, 105 mins.), which is something of a party in itself! I am only vaguely acquainted with this Grammy winning klezmer/world music/jazz fusion band, but am quickly a fan, after watching this documentary, as well as the mini-concert that a pair of the members gave at the Q&A following the screening. The film itself is described pretty honestly and accurately by Peter Stein in the program: "...[the film] combines the best elements of a backstage doc, a concert film and an eye-opening lesson in remixing Jewish culture."
(Next screenings: Sat, July 31 2010, 7:00pm, The Roda Theatre @ Berkeley Repertory Theatre and features a post-film reception in the Roda courtyard.)
Maxxxxx says re the faves of the week, which based around music, i.e. HUNGRY HEARTS, THE KLAZMATICS: "Dooby doobie dooo-ooo!"
You can contact Maxxxxx or myself here: JayCBird@AOL.COM