What a brilliant move by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival boxing movies. The 27th annual fest, always one of the Bay Area's most innovative, takes a fascinating side trip this year with a special program titled "Jewish Boxers: Shtarkers and the Sweet Science." And it's not all nostalgia. Sure, there were 27 Jewish world-champion boxers from 1901 to 1939, and American fight fans back then cheered such pugilists as Benny Leonard, Kingfish Levinsky, and Barney Ross, but today there's a new tough Jew working his way through the junior welterweight division: Dmitriy Salita.
The 25-year-old prizefighter from Flatbush, a native of Odessa, Ukraine ("Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish, and fights black," enthuses Jimmy O'Pharrow of Brooklyn's Starrett City Boxing Club), is the subject of a highly entertaining documentary, Orthodox Stance. Filmmaker Jason Hutt follows Salita's career from his first pro fight at age twenty to his debut in New York, where promoters are thrilled that he brings a new audience to the sport: Orthodox Jews and their families. Salita himself is a practicing Orthodox Jew who keeps kosher and refuses to fight on Shabbos, even in Las Vegas ("If anyone wants a whupping from me, they got to wait until after sundown"). The Sunday, July 22 West Coast premiere of Orthodox Stance at the Castro is followed by a panel on Jewish boxers and boxing films by boxing writer Mike Silver. Catch the film in the East Bay at the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre on Monday, July 30.
The festival also dips into Jewish ring history, both real and fictional, with Robert Rossen's Body and Soul, a 1947 noirish sports drama starring everyone's favorite working-class mensch, John Garfield, as an unlucky pug; the 1943 "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom comedy, My Son, the Hero, directed by cult auteur Edgar G. Ulmer; and a true curiosity, Max Baer's Last Right Hook, director Avida Livny's fake-documentary variation on Zelig, in which heavyweight ex-champ Baer visits Jerusalem to fight a German soldier named Schatzschneider at the height of World War II. It never happened, but it's fun to imagine. Body and Soul, a joint presentation of the Film Noir Foundation and the San Francisco Film Society, comes highly recommended Martin Scorsese obviously studied it closely in the preproduction of Raging Bull.
And then there's the story of Hitler's Jewish shrink. Or more accurately, the Führer's acting coach, a bewildered man named Adolf Gruenbaum, played in several keys of irony by Ulrich Mühe. In the waning days of WWII, Jewish theater maven Gruenbaum, along with his wife and children, is plucked out of a concentration camp, rushed to the Chancellery in bombed-out Berlin, and ordered to prepare the unhinged Hitler (Helge Schneider, only slightly less hysterical than Dick Shawn) for a last-ditch public spectacle to spur the Nazis to victory. Seems Gruenbaum was Hitler's former drama teacher. Who knew? My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler is the brainchild of Dani Levy, a Swiss-born German filmmaker who delights in picking the scabs of the Jewish-German relationship. Gruenbaum guides the delusional German leader (a former bed-wetter, we learn) through wild psychodrama sessions (sex, slapstick, role-playing), all the while wrestling with his own impulse to assassinate him. It turns out Gruenbaum has trouble killing another person, even Hitler. And so Mel Brooks' "nutsy Nazi" shtick is pulled through the eye of the needle and returned to the realm of tragedy with a barking Hitler on all fours, of course. My Fuehrer plays the Roda on July 31.
This year's festival also boasts a strong lineup of Israeli documentaries. Ido Haar's 9 Star Hotel examines the lives of a group of Palestinian laborers, unable to find work on their side of the fence, who sneak into Israel to work construction. They retreat to a hillside camp at night to sleep in cardboard boxes and, prompted by the filmmaker, philosophize about such mundane things as the countrywide siren that calls for a moment of silence in remembrance of the Holocaust ("All the Jews stop moving at 10 a.m." "They have a memorial day and we don't?"). In Shimon Dotan's steely doc Hot House, we visit a few of the ten thousand Palestinians behind bars in Israeli prisons, and find that, just as on the outside, they divide into Hamas and Fatah factions, and that they're practically all studying political science in Israeli universities in Hebrew only. The most unflinchingly hateful of these inmates are the women.
Meanwhile, along Israel's prickly Borders, filmmakers Nurit Kedar and Eran Riklis discover a border-hopping Lebanese merchant who profits from the constant warfare, a special refugee camp for Palestinian collaborators, and a lone saxophone player on a hilltop above the Israel-Lebanon line. The former soldiers interviewed for Kedar's Wasted stationed in the hilltop fortress of Beaufort in Southern Lebanon have experienced enough war to last the rest of their lives, even if in some instances they never actually encountered a terrorist in their entire tour of duty. What they remember are the boredom, the body odor, the taste of blood, the fear of being maimed, and the dehumanizing that comes with the job of picking off the "cardboard targets" walking in the Lebanese village below.
The protagonist of director Shemi Zarhin's contemporary drama Aviva My Love is Aviva Cohen, a Mizrahi (Jewish Arabic) woman from Tiberias whose ambition to become a writer survives numerous assaults, mostly from her neurotic family. Aviva (played by Asi Levi) thrives on being needed, but her uniformly ungrateful relatives are all leaving. Aviva's little corner of Israel seems bleaker, wearier, and lonelier than the places we've seen in previous Israeli domestic dramas. Aviva My Love screens at the Roda on Saturday, July 28.
The festival opens at the Castro Thursday, July 19 (6:30 p.m.) with Sweet Mud, a drama by writer-director Dror Shaul that views the kibbutz experience with a considerable amount of critical distance. It also plays the Roda on August 4. For a complete schedule of Jewish Film Festival showtimes and ancillary events, go to SFJFF.org
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