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San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: From Simone Weil to Kirk Douglas

by Meredith Brody
August 13, 2011 8:50 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

San Francisco critic Meredith Brody reports from the city's Jewish Film Festival:


The graphics for this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival feature a number of inspiring calligraphed words, including faith, justice, courage, pleasure, passion, drama, family, transformation, and humor. The list is surprisingly light on Yiddish: I can only puzzle out haimish and nosh on the version that flashes on the big screen, and chutzpah and schtick when perusing the catalogue cover at my leisure.

I look in vain for noodge, which is what my father starts to do to me as soon as he receives his catalogue in the mail. Suddenly the man who was happy to see two movies or fewer a year during my childhood is willing, nay, eager, to see two or more movies a day. He looks forward to the Jewish Film Festival as I do the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: they are our favorite local film fests of the year.

The “San Francisco” in the title has grown to be a bit of a misnomer: over three weeks (16 days – theaters are dark on Friday, for Shabbos), the Festival shows movies in San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto, and San Rafael – the Bay Area Jewish Film Festival would be a more accurate name. In other years, we have frequented both San Francisco and Berkeley venues (especially enjoying the JCCSF, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, for its culinary options). This year, work obligations for both of us kept us in the East Bay, where we enjoyed the better part of a week’s daytime programming. (Attending a festival in your hometown, with all its already-in-place obligations and habits, severely limits one’s attendance, I’ve found.)

I skip the opening night film, Sarah’s Key, since I’ve already seen it, feeling slightly guilty, because I know my father would have enjoyed it – if “enjoyed” is the correct word to use about a Holocaust movie. I see An Encounter with Simone Weil, a film that proves to be more about the filmmaker (who has lost a father to suicide, and whose brother also commits suicide during the course of her filming) than its putative subject. I run into a festival-going friend, who I always see at the Castro during the SF Noir and Silent Film Festivals, and we skip a Polish double bill in favor of a tremendously non-Kosher lunch at Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen (crawfish etoufee for me, grilled salmon salad for her) and a matinee of Buck at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas, to make an all-doc day.

I return to the Roda Theatre at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (a comfortable theatrical venue equipped with projection facilities) for Incessant Visions – Letters from an Architect, about German Jewish Expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn, who lived and worked in England, Israel, and the US after fleeing the Nazis. I love what I see, but his Bay Area work is given disappointingly short shrift, I feel; I go directly to Google Images when I get home.

I like virtually everything we see, in fact, a compliment to the programmers, who are working in a rather narrow field. When we’re waiting for Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, I say to my father that everything we’ve seen so far has had a holocaust component (World War II – the gift that keeps on giving), but since Aleichem died in 1916, this one won’t. Wrong – one of his books is cited as a key pre-Holocaust, even anticipatory, work.

The lively, engaging (haimishe and humorous, too) Aleichem documentary proves to be our favorite of the Festival, along with the restored 1939 Tevye of the following day, which also sends me to Google, to read about the career of actor/director Maurice Schwartz and his talented cast. We also love the half-hour short Red Shirley, Lou Reed interviewing his salty 100-year-old aunt about her life as a politically engaged garment worker.

I also enjoy the knowing gasp that runs through the audience when they hear the line that we’ve been tipped to listen for while watching Edward Dmytryk’s The Juggler -- a possible not-so-hidden apologia for his naming names to HUAC: “But sometimes for the sake of the law we have to give up our friends.” Said on-the-lam friend is Kirk Douglas, earlier in the week the winner of the 2011 SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award. My dad allows as how he’d like to have seen Kirk accept the award, given out at the Castro in SF the week before (along with a screening of the 195-minute Spartacus). I wish he’d told me earlier – say, back when I was requesting tickets. As it is, we’ve had a good nosh of a year in Jewish film.


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