Even in the obsessively multicultural Bay Area, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival sets some sort of record for fractious, provocative diversity. That's remarkable for a festival ostensibly devoted to such a narrow swath of humanity, but the notoriously feisty SFJFF has never been restricted by things like tradition or conformity to a received wisdom. Forget that old line about any two Jews having three opinions on a given subject. The Jewish Film Festival, now in its 29th season of stretching cultural boundaries, has at least 71 opinions, one for every film in this year's selection — and each one is unique.
All the other movies in this year's SFJFF are worthwhile, but Mary and Max is the one you really have to see. In a year that's shaping up as one of the strongest in recent memory for thought-provoking, grown-up animated features, Australian writer-director Adam Elliot's claymation character study compares favorably to Coraline. Years ago, before the Internet was invented, there lived in the suburbs of Melbourne a lonely, awkward eight-year-old girl named Mary Daisy Dinkle (voice of Bethany Whitmore, then Toni Collette). By sheer chance, she begins a long-distance correspondence with a similarly adrift 44-year-old man in New York City, Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the film follows their shared emotional ups and downs — mostly downs — over the course of twenty years.
Mary and Max is hardly a feel-gooder, but a warm, reassuring sense of misery-loves-company radiates through the film, thanks to Elliot's visual whimsicality and especially to the voice talents. Hoffman is virtually unrecognizable as the heavily accented Max, an atheist who loves chocolate hot dogs and belongs to Overeaters Anonymous. Mary, who picked Max's name and address at random out of a Manhattan phone book she found in a Melbourne post office, is bullied by practically everyone she knows. So is Max. Best of all is the perfectly pitched narration by Barry Humphreys, aka Dame Edna. Mary and Max plays the Castro on July 25, then the Roda on August 4.
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, collectively known as the Yes Men, have made a career and a 2003 movie as anti-corporate guerrilla pranksters with a very serious purpose. In their new documentary, The Yes Men Fix the World, Bichlbaum and Bonanno refine their technique of "posing as top executives of companies we hate" and publicly embarrassing them. Compared to the crimes committed by the companies in the first place, the Yes Men's pranks are a slight annoyance, but the object is to raise awareness, if only for a few precious minutes of air time before the hoaxes are discovered.
The lead target in the new doc is Dow Chemical, which is balking at remediating the lingering ill effects of the 1984 pesticide plant leak in Bhopal, India that killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, and continues to endanger the lives of nearby residents. Bichlbaum and Bonanno set up a dummy web site, then waited until they were invited, as Dow representatives, to a London conference on "acceptable risk." As a prop, they brought along a golden skeleton and a rationalization that substituted "other people's lives" for the familiar "other people's money." The kicker was when Bichlbaum announced that Dow would clean up the Bhopal site and compensate all the victims fairly, after years of denial. That news caused Dow's stock to lose $2 billion in 23 minutes.
Bichlbaum and Bonanno get away with it because they're articulate and look the part. Their main point: "If we keep putting the market in the driver's seat, it could happily drive the whole planet off a cliff." The Yes Men Fix the World screens at the Castro on July 26, and the Roda on August 1.
The Yes Men enrage corporations, but Israeli writer-director Yoav Shamir has a potentially touchier sociopolitical axe of his own to grind in his documentary Defamation, which plays the Castro on July 26 and the Roda, August 6. Shamir asks: What is anti-Semitism today, two generations after the Holocaust?
Good question. To answer it, keen-eyed filmmaker Shamir (Checkpoint, Flipping Out) jets back and forth across the globe, from an Israeli-sponsored student tour of the death camps at Auschwitz to Crown Heights, Brooklyn to a Moscow synagogue to the Vatican to the offices of the Anti-Defamation League, which is where the investigation starts producing heat. More than one observer is suspicious of the ADL's motives in keeping track of even the smallest anti-Semitic incidents around the world, and of the ADL's cozy relationship with the Israeli military.
One thing seems to bother such commentators as Israeli peacenik Uri Avnery, blackballed historian Norman Finkelstein, and political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt: that the "Israeli Lobby" of neo-cons in the United States is using charges of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israeli policy, especially toward Palestine. Avnery goes so far as to say that, "The phenomenon of anti-Semitism only exists in the Israeli media and in the minds of the Jewish big shots of the world who make a living fighting anti-Semitism."
Are people who criticize Israel really anti-Semites in disguise? No, say Shamir's subjects, who see the rise of the "anti-Semitic and Holocaust industries" in the United States and elsewhere — Auschwitz in particular has become a macabre theme park where Israeli paramilitary groups parade — as the leading edge of attempts by Israeli and American rightwing Jews to shut down objections to Israel's aggression toward Palestinians. Defamation (Hashmatsa), yet another example of the Jewish Film Festival's fearless refusal to play it safe, is sure to provoke discussion, especially after the scene in which a weary-looking Israeli man visiting Auschwitz speaks his mind: "We perpetuate death, and that's why we will never become a normal people, because we emphasize death and what happened."
But not all is recrimination, guilt, and bitterness at this year's SFJFF. There's also racist skinhead violence and Palestinian sexism, just for the sake of argument. In director Hanro Smitsman's Skin, a Dutch teenager named Frankie (played by Robert de Hoog) lives through the Dutch version of American History X when he joins a neo-Nazi skinhead gang in Rotterdam, circa 1979. Frankie's story is complicated by the fact that his brooding, uncommunicative Jewish father is a death camp survivor. That, alongside Frankie's mother's death from cancer, plus the anti-immigrant turmoil on the streets, drives red-haired Frankie from punk rock to race hatred and prison — the story is told as a flashback from there. It deserves a long look at the Castro (July 29) or the Roda (August 4).
Female Palestinian filmmaker Ibtisam Mara'ana packs a lot of irony into the 56 minutes of her documentary Lady Kul El-Arab — but then it's a woman's real life we're looking at, not a fictional scenario. Duah Fares, a young and very striking Druze woman from Galilee, has aspirations to use her beauty and poise as a springboard to an international modeling career. In other words, she's ready to get the hell out of Galilee. As she prepares to enter the title Arab Israeli beauty contest, Duah, who has decided to call herself Angelina (after Angelina Jolie), changes her mind and instead enters the much larger Miss Israel pageant, i.e., the big time. But Angelina doesn't reckon on the disapproval of her parents and the local Druze sheik, all of whom forbid "their women" to appear in public in a bathing suit. What happens next? Find out at the Castro on July 30 or the Roda on August 1.
Other films worth noting at the festival include Hey, Hey It's Esther Blueburger, writer-director Cathy Randall's pre-teen-friendly Jewish-Australian coming-of-ager, which takes place at a private school, the kind of place where the girls wear blazers and boaters — and where bespectacled nerd Esther (winningly portrayed by Danielle Catanzariti) can't seem to fit in. When not studying for her bat mitzvah, Esther is roundly humiliated by the shiksas. All that changes when she meets the rebellious Sunni and sneaks into her school. It opens the festival on July 23 at the Castro, then plays the Roda on August 6. Also on the light side is A Matter of Size, the gently comic story of a seriously overweight Israeli man named Herzl (Itzik Cohen) who solves his fat issues by taking up sumo wrestling with a few of his tubby friends. Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor co-direct. At the Roda, August 8.
Two films examine marriage in Arab society. Karin Albou's French/Tunisian narrative production The Wedding Song (it's the closing night film at the Castro, July 30; August 1 at the Roda) enters the hammam (public baths) for the story of two female best friends — one Arab, one Jewish — during the German occupation of Tunisia in WWII. The graphic pre-nuptial pubic depilatory scene is perhaps a first in North African cinema. Ada Ushpiz' documentary Desert Brides hears on-the-spot complaints by Israeli Bedouin women about the Bedouin system of polygamy. They don't like second-class status, but they're afraid to go outside the culture. Don't be afraid to investigate other cultures. Visit SFJFF.org for Jewish Film Festival updates.
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