The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — an annual cinematic celebration of what it means to be Jewish and art made by Jews — kicks off tonight at the Castro Theatre with the Argentine comedy The Tenth Man and a post-screening Q&A with the director. By the weekend, the festival will expand to Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Rafael.
This year’s festival features some of the usual suspects at Jewish Film Festivals. There are films about the holocaust and coping with holocaust, like the documentary A German Life about the secretary, stenographer and typist for Joseph Goebbels. There are films about the current state of Israel and zionism, like the controversial and thought-provoking documentary The Settlers. There are films by and about Jewish artists, from Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You to Mr. Gaga. And there are major buzz films about Jewish life, from James Schamus’ Indignation to the Israeli hit Baba Joon to recent Cannes Critics’ Week prize winner One Week and a Day.
What’s especially exciting though is the films that address these topics in new ways. While the People vs Fritz Bauer is about building the case against Adolf Eichmann, it’s also about the insidious anti-semitism that followed the Second World War: the way prominent Nazis still held positions of power and victims of the holocaust were still forced to deal with them, sometimes on a daily basis. Mountain is a contemporary story about an Orthodox Jew in Israel, but it’s centred around a bored, middle-aged woman who is curious about sex — enough to watch the prostitutes near her home from afar. Meanwhile, The Settlers, a documentary about the Israeli Jews illegally occupying the Gaza strip, suggests that a small group of irrational religious extremists are preventing peace in the area.
The festival boasts many wonderful films from female directors, often telling stories of marginalized characters. Elite Zexer’s exquisite Sand Storm may be set in Israel, but it’s about a Bedouin community and a young woman’s choice between personal freedom and family responsibility. Eve Neymann’s Song of Songs captures life in a turn-of-the-century Hasidic Ukrainian shtetl about the loss of childhood and traditional shtetl life shot with gorgeous colours and compositions. And Natalie Portman makes her directorial debut with Tale of Love and Darkness, a film so popular at the mid-year mini-Jewish Film Festival that they’ve brought it back for the main event.
Curiously, two of the documentaries about great Jewish artists — Mr. Gaga and Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You — rarely gesture towards their subjects’ Jewish heritage. It’s the polar opposite of Alan Zweig’s When Jews Were Funny, which tries to connect Jewish culture to the creative output of its members. Yet it’s clear that Norman Lear has been influenced by twentieth century Jewish comedy and was an active participant in shaping what that meant, even though the film never really explores this. Mr. Gaga, about Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin who invented the “Gaga” movement style, is more explicit about its subject’s roots. But it never connects Naharin’s deeply held view that dance is an expression of joy to the importance of dance in Jewish culture — especially Orthodox culture.
All in all, the program is very strong this year with many great gems that have yet to secure US distribution or are likely only to screen in the smallest of cinemas. You’ll want a big screen to experience the emotional potency of Sand Storm and the glorious dance numbers in Mr. Gaga. You’ll want to see The Settlers not just with a community but with the director present for a Q&A because it’s a film that requires post-viewing discussion, raising so many interesting — and terrifying — questions. Plus, it’s a chance to see Norman Lear on stage at the Q&A for the film about his life.
For tickets and more information about screenings, visit the festival website here.