At a time when a growing number of programmers and film-fest professionals are daring to suggest that there are now quite enough Holocaust films, thank you, it’s interesting to note that one of the best pics in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is indeed concerned with the H-word: Frederick Wiseman’s The Last Letter.
Holocaust documentaries and narratives have been a staple of Jewish fests — and of Jewish-themed filmmaking — all along, of course. It’s probably safe to say that there has never been a Jewish film fest, anywhere, ever, in which there wasn’t at least one Holocaust entry. But now, almost sixty years after the end of WWII, maybe it is finally time to move on and let the films already produced — Night and Fog, Shoah, Schindler’s List, etc. — stand as testaments. If that were to be the case, this reviewer would nominate The Last Letter as the official Last Holocaust Film. It’s a powerful, poignant summing-up of the dread and sense of loss, personified by a fictional Jewish woman physician in a Ukrainian village in 1941, writing a last letter to her grown son before the Nazis did away with her.
Even more remarkable is that The Last Letter was made by Wiseman, the acclaimed American cinema-vérité documentarian responsible for such hard-hitting social commentaries as High School, Welfare, and Hospital. The Last Letter, made in 2002, is his first attempt at narrative fiction. Adapted from Russian author Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, the fateful letter is performed as a monologue by French actor Catherine Samie, who moves across the spare stage dressed in a simple black dress with the Nazi-mandated Star of David stitched on its front. Samie acts with her fingers as much as with her aching voice. “I felt Jews were denied sunlight,” she remarks after seeing ghetto-bound Jews dressed in heavy coats and carrying suitcases, trudging through the streets past Ukrainians in summer dresses and shirtsleeves. Samie, a member of the Comédie Française, gives a tremulously emotional performance, heightened by Wiseman’s close-ups and lap dissolves and the play of light and shadows on the bare set. Even her silences are painful. In the end, the faint rumors and tenacious hopes gutter out. Our fate, says the doctor, is to be “disappeared like the Aztecs.” And then she disappears.
The SF Jewish fest, now in its 23rd year, always seems to find more than its share of intelligent, thought-provoking films, and The Last Letter, screening at the Castro on July 21 and UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium on July 28, is a definite must-see. So is Igal Bursztyn’s The Glow, an eerily comic slice of contemporary Israeli life with an unexpected whiff of magic realism — as if life on the margins of the West Bank weren’t surreal enough. The story revolves around Uriel (actor Asi Dayan), a retired army general and veteran of the Yom Kippur War, and his futile attempt to have a nice, quiet weekend shagging his young girlfriend Mona (Israeli sexpot Tinkerbell) at the country home of his friends. Something always happens: paramilitary checkpoints, the spooky Thai immigrant farmworkers, a belligerent family of orthodox Jewish settlers, that strange light in the orchard at night. Also, Mona sees angels; must be because she’s reading Maimonides’ A Guide for the Perplexed. Filmmaker Bursztyn’s entertaining “rotten weekend” has the same feel as Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac — a happy time at the movies spent with people you wouldn’t want to spend time with in person. The Glow plays July 20 at the Castro and July 27 in Palo Alto.
Over the years, the Jewish Film Festival has gone out of its way to show both sides of the seemingly never-ending clash between Israelis and Palestinians. One program in particular, showing July 20 at the Castro and July 29 at Wheeler, encapsulates the fest’s even-handed approach to one of the world’s touchiest hot spots, the West Bank, with a pair of Israeli-produced documentaries. First, Ruth Walk’s The Settlers takes us to the Jewish settler community at Tel Romeida, outside Hebron, where a band of seven Orthodox families lives in mobile homes under constant armed guard by Israeli soldiers, trusting in God and machine guns to protect them, and celebrating in the streets with loud abandon, as if taunting the Arabs. Indeed, one woman (the community seems to be mostly women and children) remarks that this would be a beautiful place to live, if they could only get rid of all these Arabs. In the second part of the double feature, Anat Even and Ada Ushpiz’ Detained, an Arab woman says pretty much the same thing about the Jews, whom she accuses of defying the Torah with their aggression toward Muslims. Three families headed by Palestinian widows live in a building directly on the line between Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled Hebron, with an Israeli guard shack out front and Palestinian territory in back. Soldiers are everywhere; someone is always meeting them on the stairs. A drunken Arab man mouths off to the soldiers, and is roughly arrested. A little girl opines: “I wish they’ll die and get out of our country.” And yet one scene shows Palestinian kids and Israeli soldiers playing together innocently in the snow. So there is hope.
Meanwhile back in Old Europe, director Roberto Faenza’s The Soul Keeper makes historical drama of the story of Sabina Spielrein (played by English actor Emilia Fox, daughter of actor Edward Fox). As the film opens, the Russian Jewish Spielrein is hospitalized in Zurich, circa 1905, with a severe case of depression. She attracts the attention of young doctor Carl Gustav Jung (Iain Glen), he treats her, they share their dreams (literally), they fall in love, and dialogue like this occurs: “This passion, it will destroy me.” Despite that, the Italian-French-English production, which also features Jane Alexander in its British cast (as Emma Jung), accumulates dramatic impact as Spielrein becomes a doctor herself, then goes on to found a charitable nursery in Moscow — only to be caught up in Stalin’s ban on psychoanalysis. And that’s only the main story. The background story, a parallel one about a contemporary man and woman researching Spielrein’s life in Moscow, could have profitably been discarded. The whole thing is a bit of a white elephant, but Fox’s performance rescues it. The Soul Keeper plays four times, including July 28 at Wheeler Auditorium.
The festival’s opening night film (Thursday, July 17 at the Castro) is Manhood, a downbeat, slightly strained comedy about single fathers and their sons dealing with women in contemporary Los Angeles. Writer-director Bobby Roth has made similar LA character studies before (Jack the Dog, Heartbreakers, The Boss’ Son), but none in which the John Ritter character, a good-for-nothing scoundrel named Eli, is referred to as “the kind of man who makes people call Jews ‘kikes.'” It’s a guy-movie about relationships, with a Jewish veneer — goyishe actors saying “schmuck” and “putz” a lot and hanging out at the Formosa Bar. Of the large cast — Janeane Garofalo, Nestor Carbonell, Bonnie Bedelia, Lauren Tom, Barry Newman — the lone standout is Nick Roth, the director’s son, as a suitably screwed-up teenager. It’s at Wheeler on July 26. See it if you must.
Documentaries have always been one of the Jewish fest’s strengths, and there are at least three worth shouting about. Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs — The Iraqi Connection is an especially intelligent doc, told in first-person voiceover by its filmmaker Samir (just Samir), the son of an Iraqi communist, who goes to Israel to connect with sympathetic Jews from the old, pre-Saddam Hussein days. We meet a number of Mizrahim (Arabic Jews) who had lived in Iraq — Jews had lived there for three thousand years — and learn that after WWII, such “Oriental” Jews were actively sought by the new Israeli government to raise Jewish population counts in the newly-conquered former Palestine. But they had trouble fitting in (“They thought we were primitive,” shrugs one man, describing his reception by the Ashkenazim from Europe), leading to one of many ongoing ethnic conflicts in Israel. In many ways, the Mizrahim felt more at home with Arabs than with Jews. Forget Baghdad screens July 23 at the Castro, July 28 at Wheeler.
The double feature of Suzanne Wasserman’s Thunder in Guyana and Nurit Kedar’s Asesino (Castro, July 24; Wheeler, July 30) relates the tribulations of Jews in Latin America. Thunder‘s Janet Rosenberg Jagan, a Chicago-born leftist, moved to British Guyana with her Indian-Guyanan husband Cheddi Jagan and began a lifelong social movement, culminating with her being elected that country’s president in 1997. Contrast that triumph with the outrage in Asesino, another melancholy account of the 1970s “dirty war” in Argentina — and the Israeli government’s role in not questioning the Argentine military junta about the disappearances of Jewish-Argentine and Israeli students. But the camera does capture a bit of crude street justice, the only kind available: Years later, a crowd of citizens corners and pummels an ex-military man in a department store.
The fest’s closing night film also comes from Argentina, and shows the staying power of Woody Allen’s image, if nothing else. Too bad the film is so dumbed down. Samy Goldstein, the protagonist of Samy y Yo (played by Ricardo Darín), is a forty-year-old TV talk show writer and bespectacled klutz who shambles around the streets of Buenos Aires in a shabby raincoat, copping lines from Manhattan (“He hated Buenos Aires, its streets, its cafes …”) and, astoundingly, attracting a pretty young woman named Mary (Angie Cepeda) who says things like: “I’d like to be Jewish — they’re so funny.” In writer-director Eduardo Milewicz’ sit-commish alternate universe, Mary drops a word to her media-mogul sugar daddy, and voilà! Samy soon becomes the star of his own TV show. It’s as if the ’60s were happening all over again many miles to the south.
There are some fifty films from thirteen countries at the Jewish Film Festival. For ticket information, phone 925-275-9490 or log onto SFJFF.org