'Jaffa' is a standout at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

SF Jewish Film Festival Lights 30 Candles

Michael Fox July 22, 2010

For the first 20 or so years of its existence, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival drew most heavily on the Israel-Germany-United States triumvirate for its programming. The world has opened up in the last decade: The historical archives of the former Soviet bloc countries are finally being mined to illuminating effect, for example, while filmmakers are freer to confront their countries’ less-than-shining WWII records—even as U.S. theatrical bookings of foreign films have declined, giving niche festivals access to a greater swath of high-quality dramas. The upshot is that local connoisseurs of international cinema beyond the festival’s identity-based target audience know to scope out the Jewish Film Festival program (as well as those of Frameline, the Asian American International Film Festival, et al.).

The opening night film, Ludi Boeken’s Saviors In the Night, is a fine appetite-whetter for the excellent selection of foreign-language works scattered throughout the program of the 30th annual SF Jewish Film Festival. This earthy, pungent German-French co-production is based on the true story of a German-Jewish mother and daughter sheltered during the war by a family of farmers. Class and lifestyle differences generate almost as much tension as the risk of discovery by the local Hitler Youth, leading to a domestic friendship that provides the film’s emotional core. France is also represented by Robert Guediguian’s resistance epic Army of Crime (opening Aug. 20 on SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki) and the contemporary family saga The Wolberg Family, which premiered locally last fall in San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now.

The Nazi invasion sets a string of curious events in motion in Protektor, the Czech Republic’s submission for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar. A radio journalist receives an unexpected career boost from his Nazi bosses, while his Jewish wife, a now-unemployable actress, declines to wither away at home. Director Marek Najbert adopts a visually aggressive style, a gorgeous mélange of period and contemporary, for an irreverent, acerbic exploration of tough moral choices. Another narrative feature from Eastern Europe with flashes of dark humor, Gruber’s Journey, finds Romanian director Radu Gabrea taking on his country’s largely unacknowledged treatment of its Jews in those dark days.

Keren Yedaya, the tough-minded Israeli director of 2004’s Or, again casts Ronit Elkabetz and Dana Ivgy as a working-class mother and daughter in the utterly gripping Jaffa. This mesmerizing drama, a standout among the films I previewed, centers on a loud, brusque Jewish family with a small car-repair business whose best employees are an Israeli Arab father and son. Despite all the sociopolitical undercurrents, the film ultimately hinges on the consequences of individual choices. Mrs. Moscowitz and the Cats is a small-scale, tonally eccentric look at an older woman (Rita Zohar, in a lovely performance) forced to relinquish her independence, and discover some new sides of herself, after a fall. Both movies feature colorful performances by Moni Moshonov, for those who know their Israeli actors.

Mother Russia is represented by the much-praised experimental documentary about poet Joseph Brodsky, A Room and a Half, which played last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Stalin Thought of You uses elderly political cartoonist Boris Efimov and his brother, executed several decades ago by Comrade Stalin, as the point of entry into a survey of typically head-scratching Soviet history. Totalitarianism of a more recent vintage undergirds Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika, which profiles five 40-something Muscovites raised as idealistic little Communists who have adapted (with greater or lesser success) to free-market Russia.

I’ve saved most of the films dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict for last, in part because political and current-events junkies are quite adept at identifying and supporting those programs. The confusion and ambivalence that seems to attend this moment in Middle Eastern time is embodied in the conflicted subject of Sayed Kashua—Forever Scared. A novelist, newspaper columnist and writer of the hit TV show Arab Labor, Kashua is an Israeli Arab with loyalties to and resentments against both sides. He’s being honored, quite fittingly, with the festival’s Freedom Of Expression Award. Equally fitting, he’ll be feted after the San Francisco screening of the first three episodes of the new season of Arab Labor.

For those who retain some faint hopes for the prospects of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, a pair of documentaries may have the salutary effect of recharging your optimism batteries. Budrus, which screened in the San Francisco International Film Festival and could return for a theatrical run in the fall, follows a nonviolent grassroots protest movement against the erection of Israel’s security wall on the titular West Bank village’s land. Lisa Gossels’ My So-Called Enemy tracks half a dozen young Christian, Muslim and Jewish women in the years after they met and bonded at a 2002 retreat in the United States.

The American Jewish experience is, naturally, at the core of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival’s mission. Former festival programmer Nancy Fishman confronts a rather unsavory aspect of that legacy with the bullet-ridden sidebar, “Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film.” Howard Hawks’ Scarface, Barry Levinson’s Bugsy and two other Hollywood flicks screen during the festival, with four other titles to be shown at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the fall.

Mobster stories rarely have happy endings, but the SFJFF does. The closing night film, The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, spotlights a buoyant world-music band that was born in the U.S.A. Finally, here’s one more feel-good pick, especially if you believe the Giants’ season has a ticker-tape finish in store. Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story is a brisk, blissful and sharply written recap of a beautiful relationship, highlighted by segments on Hank Greenberg, Moe Berg, Al Rosen and Sandy Koufax. It’s good, smart fun, even if you’re a Dodger-hater.

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