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.
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