You’ll notice that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, unlike myriad other major film fests, doesn’t use the word “international” in its name. That’s because it doesn’t need to. Seemingly by its very definition, the secular Jewish experience is international — a succession of waxing and waning kingdoms, restless diasporas, incessant bitter wars and persecutions, and over it all, layer upon layer of cross-cultural ferment.
The SF Jewish fest is famous for presenting visions of world Jewish life in as many variations as it can lay its hands on. Part of what makes it the most consistently interesting fest in the Bay Area — besides its adventurousness and knack for controversy — is that seemingly effortlessly it achieves the broad international scope other fests strive for. Jewish filmmakers come from Buenos Aires, Berkeley, Tel Aviv, Paris, Odessa, Toronto, Brooklyn, Amsterdam, Evanston, and Moscow. How could they not be international? Moreover, year after year, the fest’s selections make a point of challenging preconceptions and redefining what it means to be a Jew, while at the same time opening up the universality of the Jewish experience so that even non-Jews can relate. That’s the key to true multiculturalism. Nobody captures that particular world beat better than the SF Jewish.
Look at the comic cultural cauldron filmmaker Renaud Cohen sets boiling in contemporary Paris in Once We Grow Up (Quand on sera grand), his opening-night film. Simon Dadoun (beautifully played by Mathieu Demy) is a Sephardic Jewish thirtysomething with a problem. Make that several problems. He and his girlfriend Christine, a Gentile, want to have a baby but don’t actually see each other very often. When they finally get down to having sex, it becomes an herbal ritual. Simon has a wandering eye, and carries on a variety of mild and serious flirtations with his female neighbors, including a voluptuously pregnant Sephardic woman named Claire (Amira Casar) with a brow-beating Ashkenazi husband, and Lea (Marie Payen), who trolls seedy bars and may or may not be lesbian. Simon also has a wandering grandmother; she’s an Alzheimer’s patient, and caring for her is a chore for Simon and his father, Isaac (Maurice Benichou), an Algerian-born psychiatrist.
On top of all this, Simon is a shnook. He holds the dubious job of editing a stuffy trade publication for the tobacco industry (with its dreadful convention honoring “le pipeur de France” — pipe is slang for blow-job) and amuses himself by peering into his father’s psychiatric sessions through a peephole. He also makes everything complicated, especially in his hilarious pro-fertility sex scenes. Any resemblance between Simon and a Woody Allen character of the ’70s is probably intentional. Nevertheless, he’s a Parisian shnook, with a trace of Jean-Pierre Léaud and a whiff of Mathieu Kassovitz, running around an eccentric, multicultural Paris doing crazy things like giving a Spanish neighbor kid a marijuana joint; commiserating with his exotic-chaser friend Fabrice (Julien Boisselier), who trades his Asian girlfriend for an African one; editing an anti-smoking special issue of his tobacco mag (it gets him fired); and constantly fretting about his late mother, who died giving birth to him back in Algeria. Demy does a splendid job with the lovably screwed-up Simon, and director-cowriter Cohen takes us places we’d never expect to go in an ordinary urban lifestyle comedy — which Once We Grow Up decidedly is not.
“People love to go to the movies and travel vicariously,” says fest associate director Sam Ball, “and the Jewish experience is essentially one of travel. The diaspora. Our [the fest’s] approach to culture is through the travels of Jews, and how Jewish culture has adapted to that of host countries.” That approach has been successful: The SF Jewish Film Festival plays to 33,000-35,000 people every summer, making it the largest Jewish fest in the world. But Ball and festival director Janis Plotkin have always done it their way, and their insouciant spirit has sometimes sparked controversy, of the Ashkenazic-Sephardic, Israeli-Palestinian, how-Jewish-is-it variety.
Ball evidently relishes the give-and-take. Diversity is what makes this fest breathe. He says: “Our festival trailer features Cheb i Sabbah, a Berber Jew influenced by Persian and Indian music who’s also a San Francisco-based DJ and recording artist. At the end of the trailer, he does a namaste, a traditional Hindu sign of respect. People have called and said, ‘That’s not Jewish!’ Well, in his case, it certainly is. Host cultures have always influenced and informed Jewish culture, and vice-versa. That tension has kept Judaism alive. Jewish culture is inherently multicultural.”
The “multi” prize in this year’s fest probably goes to Gur Bentwich’s Total Love, a rollicking techno-music-fueled backpacker odyssey that follows a bloke named Haim (Israeli pop music star Maor Cohen) from his chemistry lab in an Israeli military base to Amsterdam to Goa, India, on a quest to find his lost girlfriend Renana (played by an actress named Tinkerbell) — and also to secure Dutch distribution for his new, mind-blowing, pink-tinted rave drug, TLV, or Total Love. Director-cowriter Bentwich, a Tel Aviv University film school grad, helps move the film along with his performance as Shushan, a glib Amsterdam drug dealer who lives on a houseboat in the Amstel River, and who also happens to be a former lover of Renana. In fact, half the male characters we meet are former lovers of Renana. In the spirit of Hideous Kinky, Total Love takes us into the scene, gets us stoned, and tries to show us that Haim and his friends have extra dimensions in spite of everything. As a devil-may-care introduction to the international neo-hippie jet set, Total Love is in a class by itself. It definitely travels.
One of the nicest bonuses of this year’s SFJFF is the Alan Berliner retrospective. Berliner is a whimsical American documentarian who finds himself endlessly fascinating, and who has the talent — and on-screen affability — to justify that self-absorption. His new short-feature-length doc, The Sweetest Sound, explores the wonderfulness, and a few of the drawbacks, of being Alan Berliner — that is, of having the name Alan Berliner. Berliner sent out e-mails to every Alan (or Allen, or Alain, or Allan) Berliner he could find, inviting them to become a part of his film. He is not, he assures us in the first reel, the same Alain Berliner who made the Belgian film Ma Vie en Rose. That Alain Berliner showed up to do talking heads, as did about a dozen others. Berliner’s lasting appeal lies in his voice — a standup comedian’s, mildly insinuating and mock-self-deprecating — and especially in his philosophical musings on identity: the meaning of names as “secret codes, private languages” and as the foundation of selfhood. Mostly, though, Berliner likes to play games with old stock footage and statistics. His sense of fun is contagious.
Every year the Jewish fest presents at least one archival restoration by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. This year it’s Alexander Granovsky’s Jewish Luck, a 1925 silent adaptation of the well-known Sholem Aleichem stories about one Menakhem Mendel, the classic fictional luftmensch of the old Eastern European ghettoes and shtetls, a failed con man and small-time salesman who dreams and schemes his entire life, yet never has anything to show for it. Foolish ethnic characters such as Menakhem Mendel and Tevye the Fiddler veer a little too close to the Amos and Andy/Stepin Fetchit formula for my taste, but Granovsky’s film is worth a look for its slapstick glimpse into the vanished world of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe.
In Berdichev in Tsarist Russia, Mendel and his partner Zalmen start selling corsets, then insurance, and, finally, matchmaking. Think broad gestures. Very broad gestures. More of a dated curiosity than a lost masterpiece, Jewish Luck is distinguished by the camera work of Edouard Tisse, Sergei Eisenstein’s favorite cinematographer.
For a look at what Sam Ball calls “a complicated urban culture viewed through Jewish eyes,” Daniel Burman’s Waiting for the Messiah whisks us to contemporary Argentina, where a young Jewish man named Ariel is trying to decide between two women: his father’s girlfriend or the cute shiksa at work. Time was when all Argentine movies were veiled attacks on the right-wing militarism of that unfortunate Latin American country. Now, we’re treated to lightly agreeable multi-culti idylls like Burman’s — sex, longing, and Jewishness in Buenos Aires — with lonely people searching for love and sometimes finding it, very much like a Wim Wenders film from the ’70s. The standard-brand anomie is nicely fleshed out by the music score, with its clarinet and bandoneon, but what more can we say about a movie about loneliness in the city in which a character discovers a baby in a dumpster at Christmas/Chanukah?
Films about the Holocaust will never stop being made in our lifetime because, strictly in news terms, the story is too big and there are so many sides to it. All Jewish film fests run a Holocaust doc or two each year, just as every list of Academy Award documentary nominations seems to have one (they usually win). This is the wrong place to argue the legitimacy of a genre, but there’s no denying the Holocaust is one of the most over-reported subjects — narrative or documentary — in film. That noted, there exist in the world good, bad, and average Holocaust docs. One of the average ones is Jacky and Lisa Comforty’s The Optimists, a workable if unexciting account of Jewish life in Bulgaria during WWII. Its most important point is that in that country, with its mixture of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all three groups got along so well before the Nazis came that when it came time for Bulgaria (the country was officially a German ally) to enforce Hitler’s murderous racial policies, most of the time it just didn’t happen, a rare instance of noncompliance.
Mosco Boucault’s Terrorists in Retirement, on the other hand, is a very good Holocaust doc: not only a thrilling account of the exploits of a group of mostly-Jewish, all-Communist, Eastern European immigrants trapped in Paris when the Nazis marched in, but also a useful how-to manual for would-be partisans and resisters. Using mute actors in German uniforms, director Boucault takes the surviving senior-citizen veterans of the resistance out into the streets of Paris to reenact their point-blank assassinations and bombings of cafes containing German officers. The partisans were tailor-made for Nazi propaganda, and when some were caught and executed, moral questions arose. À la The Sorrow and the Pity, there’s an accusing finger pointed at French officials, who seemingly thought freedom fighters with names such as Mitzflicker, Manouchian, Rayman, or Lemberger somehow weren’t French enough to be counted as true patriots. The rebels’ mission was “to translate their fear into the will to fight,” and Boucault’s film brings them the recognition they deserve.
There are lots more films in the fest — 26 features and eighteen shorts from some thirteen countries. The Jewish fest is one of the very few in which you can randomly pick a film and be assured of at least an interesting evening at the movies. The SFJFF opens Thursday night, July 19, at 7:00 at SF’s Castro Theatre with Once We Grow Up, with live music by DJ Cheb i Sabbah before the film as well as at the party afterwards. On Saturday, July 28, the fest opens at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, replacing the late lamented UC Theatre as the fest’s East Bay home. Check the Express‘ “One Night Stands” listings for details.