One thing that never changes about the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is that it's constantly changing. Year after year, it's one of the most consistently provocative Bay Area film fests, unafraid of stirring controversy and committed to presenting the greatest possible number of points of view — inside its self-proclaimed parameters of reflecting the diverse Jewish experience around the world.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel. The Jewish festival's brass — executive director Peter Stein, program director Nancy Fishman, and board president Shana Penn — pay tribute to that eternally conflicted homeland by screening a bumper crop of films from and about Israel, past and present. In keeping with the festival's skeptical, perennially dissatisfied approach, each one displays a different slice of life in Israel and each opens up a fresh discussion.
In 1960, French experimentalist Chris Marker made the documentary Description of a Struggle, one of the most illuminating films about Israel because it's one of the subtlest and least didactic. Under Marker's direction, Ghislain Cloquet's camera buzzes around the newish, twelve-year-old nation like an inquisitive fly, here alighting for a few seconds, there lingering for a long look, while Marker's voice narrates his poetic, stream-of-consciousness impressions: "Noonday sun cracks the Spartan varnish and the uniform is shed." Or: "A stretch of lunar landscape embedded into the earth, the scene of Essene Communities and of Bar-Kochba's guerrillas, the site, according to a Russian, of the first atomic blast, on a Judean Hiroshima named Sodom." We glimpse Israel candidly, through the eyes of an artist. Marker is just as fascinated with a lone crop-spraying airplane as he is with the ultra-orthodox ghetto in Jerusalem or a kibbutz election.
Two of Marker's most indelible sequences — a Palestinian boy riding a pushcart down a hilly Haifa street, and a sensitive teenage girl painting a picture in a studio — are updated in Israeli director Dan Geva's Description of a Memory, his 2006 tribute to the earlier film. In a flat monotone, Geva's first-person narration accompanies "thirteen filmed memories" of Marker's doc, a revisit to see what changes have taken place. Almost no one in Haifa remembers Ali, the joyous kid rolling the cart. We finally learn that he was crippled by a policeman and became a bitter loner. As for the delicate young artist with the gracefully long neck and the tranquil expression, she now lives in London for her own safety. Geva's technique never quite achieves the dreamlike heights of Marker's — how many could? — but it's a welcome gloss on a classic portrait. Sometimes the truth of a complex subject lies in emotions. Description of a Struggle and Description of a Memory play in a double feature one time only, August 9 (11:30 a.m.) at Berkeley's Roda Theatre.
Israel is never actually seen but is omnipresent in Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv's Strangers. The 2007 Israeli production tackles "the troubles" in what at first seems the most hackneyed fashion — Israeli boy meets Palestinian girl — but somehow the writing and acting conquer all. Soft-spoken kibbutznik Eyal (played by Liron Levbo) arrives in Berlin during the 2006 World Cup soccer tournament to visit his German girlfriend, but suddenly she's unavailable. In the subway, he accidentally switches backpacks with Rana (Lubna Azabal), a Palestinian-born Parisian who's there to cheer for the French team, and their decision to share a flat leads to romance. Rana, an illegal immigrant, has a young son in Paris. Eyal wants to help. Together they solve the Israeli-Palestinian situation the old-fashioned way: by shtupping. And then, more importantly, by being there. Strangers receives its California premiere on the festival's opening night, Thursday, July 24, 8 p.m., at the Castro, with co-filmmaker Tadmor in attendance.
The Shoah, aka the Holocaust, has fueled countless films, but seldom with the same straight-faced combination of irony and prurience as in Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel. Director Ari Libsker takes a cue from Mel Brooks and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS in his matter-of-fact documentary on the eponymous 1960s Israeli literary genre, a series of lurid paperbacks that fused sex and real-life horror, all with the same basic plot: captured WWII servicemen sadistically brutalized by beautiful (always beautiful) Nazi women troops in a concentration camp. Hoo boy. Newspaper journalist Libsker has a field day with the subject. So did Israeli psychologists, judges, and public officials. Stalags first appeared in newsstands during the trial in Israel of German war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Before that, maintains Libsker, the Shoah had never been publicly addressed in that country — the memories were too painfully fresh.
Despite police efforts to destroy the books, everyone had a secret stash of such Stalags as I Was Colonel Schultz's Private Bitch and House of Dolls. Even today, one Israeli lawyer describes his sexual affair with a German woman, granddaughter of an SS man, thusly: "I fuck her on behalf of the six million. I'm no pervert, just an Israeli enjoying life." Libsker's "director's statement" states his case plainly: "In Israel there is a particular type of fan of films and books dealing with the Holocaust who consumes the horrific stories and the description of the bodies, the experiments on humans, the rape and the prostitution. ... The main difference between this type of fan and the collectors of Stalags is that the Stalag readers conceal their liking of this literature and call it 'pornography,' which it really is, while the admirers of Holocaust horrors wrap their voyeurism with righteousness in which they pride themselves."
Stalags screens three times at the fest, including August 6 at the Roda Theatre, on a twin bill with the socially conscious documentary It Kinda Scares Me. The festival honors the Heymann brothers, Tomer and Barak, with three programs of six of their docs at various venues. It Kinda Scares Me (2001) focuses on Tomer himself as the leader of a government program for at-risk youth in Azur, a Tel Aviv suburb. In the middle of the film, Tomer announces to his tough clients that he's gay. They get over it.
Director Lior Geller's narrative short film Roads also looks at troubled young people — Palestinian drug dealers in the city of Lod — in the story of a disillusioned Israeli army vet, Daniel, and his hurried relationship with a boy named Ismayil. Ahmed the neighborhood crime boss sends Ismayil and his brother Riad to pick up some dope, leading to violence set to Arabic hip-hop music. New Jersey native Geller shows a lot of style and substance in 22 minutes. Roads is part of a compilation program, "Jews in Shorts," showing at Roda Theatre on August 1 and 7.
Among other festival films on life in Israel, Tamar Yarom's documentary To See If I'm Smiling is notable for its profile of six young women soldiers (Israel is the only country in the world with a compulsory draft for women) as they go about their duties as medics, observers, combat troops, officers, etc. One tells how she felt after killing a boy. Another describes how, when cleaning up the body of a Palestinian in order to hide evidence of his mistreatment by Israeli IDF soldiers, the dead man's eyes popped open. Yarom's doc plays Roda on August 7. Also worth a peek: Bilin My Love, Shai Carmeli Pollak's doc about Anarchists Against the Wall, an Israeli peace group (Roda, August 2); Avi Nesher's religiously infused drama The Secrets (August 5 at the Roda); and Tel Aviv by Girls, the extremely indie story (it looks like a stretched-out YouTube video) of the friendship of two women writers, written and directed by the women in question, Eliette Abécassis and Tiffany Tavernier. The latter screens August 5 at the Roda.
Not all is Separation Fences, rocket attacks, death camps, and 21st-century anomie at this year's fest. Take Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Sacha Gervasi's American-produced documentary on the career of the title heavy metal band, essentially two nudniks from Toronto who don't know when to quit. It bears a strong resemblance to This Is Spinal Tap, but is funnier and more pathetic because it's real. Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (no, not Rob Reiner) and their metal band Anvil flirted briefly with the big time back in 1982 but never quite caught on. Now in their early fifties, the two amiable numbskulls work menial jobs and borrow money from relatives in order to keep their rock dreams alive. They go on a miserable European tour organized by their disorganized manager, Tiziana. They cut their thirteenth album and can't get it released. But they've had lots of fun, traveled, never been debilitated by drugs, and they're still doing what they love. That's positive. So why is this movie in the Jewish Film Festival? Because Lips and Robb are both Jewish. It plays the Roda on August 9.
If you see no other film at the festival, make room in your schedule for Miss Universe 1929: Lisl Goldarbeiter, A Queen in Wien, the latest marvelous assemblage by the Hungarian master Péter Forgács. The chronicle of a Jewish Viennese beauty who survived the Holocaust isn't strictly one of Forgács' best, but you owe it to yourself to see what he can do with home-movie footage and the memory of a lost civilization. August 6 at Roda Theatre. Visit SFJFF.org for up-to-date schedules and info.
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