Bonfire of the Holocausts 

The Jewish Film Festival, in a slack year, turns to an old standby.

Even a world-class film festival is entitled to an off year once in a while.

In its 24 years of operation, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has gained a reputation for first-rate programming and political fearlessness. As part of its stated mission to present a broad, many-faceted picture of Jewish life around the world, the fest often gleefully trod on prominent toes by screening films that showed both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gave voice to the oppressed. At the Jewish fest, we got the feeling we were receiving urgent, frontline dispatches from the West Bank and the Occupied Territories, with all the niceties and hypocrisy boiled away.

That same contrarian impulse continues, arguably, in the 2004 edition of the festival -- which boasts some forty films and videos from twelve countries -- in such pics as Yoav Shamir's remarkable documentary Checkpoint, a cool, hard look at everyday life (and everyday indignities) at Israel's numerous internal military checkpoints. But there's an overall lack of sizzle at the fest this time around. Maybe it's just a slack year in general for Jewish-themed films. Maybe the stress of digging up increasingly provocative entries year after year proved too much for the festival's new management. Other festivals, meanwhile, are stealing the Jewish's traditional thunder. Checkpoint, the very definition of a hard-hitting SF Jewish festival doc, first played locally at the SF International fest, and many of the best things about the 2004 edition of the Jewish fest are retreads.

The most memorable films at the Jewish Film Festival this year come from a pair of series within the fest, "Hollywood and the Holocaust" and "Im-Passioned: Jewish Filmmakers Address Christian Imagery," both of which dig down deep into the pain of the Jewish experience and its historical roots.

And when it's pain you're after, nothing satisfies like the Holocaust. Holocaust films, along with films from or about Israel, contemporary portraits of Jewish life in other parts of the world, and nostalgic reminders of life in the Jewish diaspora, have always formed the basis -- the four pillars, if you will -- of any Jewish film festival anywhere. A Jewish film fest without a Holocaust movie is like Ted Danson without his rug. There are schools of thought that contend that all the really important Holocaust pics have already been made, but that will not stop new ones from arriving. We will probably never see the end of the Holocaust-film genre in our lifetimes. Not as long as they keep winning Academy Awards.

In his thoughtful film-history documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, filmmaker Daniel Anker employs clips plus a parade of talking-head experts -- directors Sidney Lumet, Branko Lustig, and Steven Spielberg; historians Neal Gabler, Michael Berenbaum, and Thane Rosenbaum -- to explain the various phases of the American movie biz' depiction of Hitler's crimes against the Jewish people, from the premature antifascism of the 1930s to Spielberg's solemn '90s-era tributes. The consensus seems to be that after treading a fine line through times in which the largely Jewish-owned film studios were continually under official suspicion (the HUAC anti-Red hearings of the '40s and '50s, for instance, strongly implied that Jews, Hollywood, and Communism were inextricably linked), Hollywood in the '60s and '70s finally broke through and told it like it was in such landmark movies as Lumet's The Pawnbroker. By the time Schindler's List rolled around, the Holocaust was so ingrained in US culture that it had become what Berenbaum terms "the negative absolute in American society." All this was accomplished by means of what Gabler calls Hollywood's "art of the middle," that is, the entertainment-biz formula for depicting horrors in such a way that people can go home and feel good about themselves and the world they live in. Hence the righteous goy, Oskar Schindler.

The SF fest, which has also scheduled a panel discussion on the subject at the Castro (July 27), is playing a few choice examples of H'wood H'caust fare. The best of these is Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 classic To Be or Not to Be, which presents the jaw-dropping comic premise of Jewish-American comedian Jack Benny playing a Polish ham actor masquerading as a Nazi German SS officer (in answer to a query about concentration camps, he laughingly proclaims, "We're doing the concentrating, and the Poles are doing the camping"). This happens in the midst of one of Lubitsch's patented sex farces -- which happens to be set in Warsaw during the WWII German occupation. Also well worth seeing: a newly restored print of Markus Imhoof's heartbreaking The Boat Is Full (1981), the narrative account of what happens to a motley group of refugees who flee across the German border into Switzerland to escape certain death, only to encounter a dour bunch of "neutral" country bumpkins. If only Spielberg knew how to tell a sad story with Imhoof's subtle, perfectly timed sense of irony.

The "Im-Passioned" program, ostensibly a response/rebuttal to the imagery of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and its putatively inflammatory anti-Semitic message, is the fest's true food for thought. First comes Bay Area filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt's short King of the Jews, another mesmerizing clips-filled time travel through the emotional terrain of his childhood -- in this case his awakening to the news that Jesus Christ, the "Jew-killing monster" his parents always referred to as "Jersey City," was in fact a Jew. This is accompanied by the screen agonies of Jesus, mostly from obscure silent films.

More explicit and certainly more damning is Sorry, Judas, English actor and cultural critic Howard Jacobson's one-man show, which takes us on a dizzying trip through centuries of religious and cultural hatred and misapprehension, guided by the figure of Judas Iscariot. Judas is portrayed by Jacobson with full medieval Christian accoutrements: outrageously hooked nose, prominent warts, outlandish red hair, and always the purse filled with blood money, the thirty pieces of silver that the False One received for betraying Christ, the money that sealed the Jews' fate through centuries of persecution. Jacobson's acerbic, infuriatingly snide, wounded, undeniably Judeocentric performance -- directed for the screen by Celia Lowenstein -- is a brilliant piece of work. Surely Judas is the world's most misunderstood guy. Astonishingly, his Judas actually craves Christian sainthood: "My only sin is that I facilitated Christianity. We can live without Judas, but can you?" Jacobson, Rosenblatt, and Lowenstein appear in a panel at the Castro this Saturday, July 24, at 2:15 p.m. This panel, along with the above two films, are the fest's only absolute must-sees.

But with careful choosing, the discerning fest-maven can find worthwhile, even challenging entertainment during the next two weeks. The pick of the Israeli narrative crop this year is probably Amos Gitai's Alila, a 2003 pastiche drama of contemporary Tel Aviv life in which Gitai, Israel's swingingest director, very ostentatiously gets a lot of people up in front of the camera, busily doing things and yelling. Then the scene shifts to another group in the same neighborhood. It's all a bit overwrought, but the sex scenes are good. A little (only a little) less self-conscious is writer-director Savi Gabizon's Nina's Tragedies, a sort of Remembrance of Things Past crossed with My Life as a Dog, about a quiet, nerdy teenage boy named Nadav and all the sex swirling around him. Evidently sex is big this year in Israel. Those allergic to magic realism should avoid.

More in the classic art-film vein is Russian director Valery Folkin's homage to Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, with a knockout perf by Evgeny Mironov as the unfortunate Gregor Samsa -- no prosthetic cockroach wings or makeup, just pure physical transformation. The opening-night film, Paul Morrison's Wondrous Oblivion, could use a little of the Russian's sense of wonder. It's a routine nostalgia pic about a Jewish boy, also nerdy, growing up in '60s London next door to a cricket-playing black Jamaican family. Naturally they teach him how to loosen up and love life, mon.

Only one film from the "Jewish-American Scene" file is a sure winner: Matt Mahurin's documentary profile of Kenny Shopsin, a lovably eccentric Greenwich Village character whose funky, cluttered store and restaurant has been lionized in The New Yorker and elsewhere by his regular customers (Calvin Trillin, et al.), both for Shopsin's harebrained native wit and his wildly inventive hippie-munchie menu combos. Watching this movie is like biting into Macadamia Chowder, or Pumpkin Shrimp Soup, or a Chicken Salad Melt, or Orange Turkey Pistachio Soup, or the Thai Cobb Salad. Other docs, like Seeds (summer camp in Maine for Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu kids), Resist (history of the avant-garde Living Theatre), and Sunset Hall (visit to a Los Angeles retirement home for progressive seniors), fulfill only the basic mandate of the basic Jewish film festival -- they all have something to do with Jews. How boring. Better to relax, enjoy an order of Macaroni and Cheese Pancakes, and burrow into the thoughts of Kenny Shopsin: "[Unusual recipes] are like puttin' your dick in the wrong hole" or "When you treat people with respect who don't deserve it, it's a mark of high civilization" or "He's gonna go to Wall Street and slaughter Third World nations today, and he's havin' chocolate chip pancakes for fuckin' breakfast. Good for him." And good for you, as well.

The Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday, July 22 and runs through July 29 at the Castro, then plays more or less the same films in the East Bay, July 31 through August 5 at Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. To learn more about the fest, go to SFJFF.org

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