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The 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: A Religious Experience

Photo of Meredith Brody By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood August 21, 2014 at 10:30AM

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has an enthusiastic and loyal audience, some of whom see every single film on offer, made possible because the festival unspools, mostly, in one theater at a time.
'Run Boy Run'
'Run Boy Run'

After attending religiously for a number of years (pun forgivable), I realize that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival now joins the two San Francisco festivals I consider unmissable: The SF Silent Film Festival, and Noir City. Like them, it has an enthusiastic and loyal audience, some of whom see every single film on offer, made possible because the festival unspools, mostly, in one theater at a time. 

A more appropriate title, these days, might be the Bay Area Jewish Film Festival, because it travels all over: at SF's venerable Castro Theatre, there were 11 days of screenings. Meantime, there were six days of films shown at the CineArts in Palo Alto. I attended the week-long section which followed in Berkeley's California, followed by a three-day weekend at the glorious Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, which overlapped with three days of screenings at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.  A few special events were presented at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Rayko Photo Center in SF, and the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.

The appreciative and vocal audience lifts the experience, as does the fact that I have a built-in companion: it's my father's favorite film festival. I go to altogether too many movies alone, so it's a special treat.  It does skew the schedule, however: three movies is pretty much his limit -- as well as the limit of my mother's tolerance for his absence -- so rather than choosing what I see from catalogue descriptions or knowledge of the filmmakers' work, we tend to go to the first or second movie of the day and see whatever's on offer afterwards. Real life intrudes, too: since it's in our hometown, we push "pause" for pre-existing Oakland A's tickets, doctor's appointments, and such.

Nicolas Duvauchelle
Nicolas Duvauchelle

Still, we managed to see 25 different programs over 10 days, and, thanks to the festival's witty and eclectic programming, we enjoyed nearly everything we saw. Perhaps my favorite was the emotional, well-directed, and brilliantly-acted "Run Boy Run," directed by the unknown-to-me German Pepe Danquart (whose filmography includes mostly documentaries), in which a young boy survives the Holocaust in Poland through his wits, charm, and the occasional sympathetic farmer. A contemporary revelation at the end increased its power.  My father's favorite was "Mamele," a 1938 family comedy starring the girlish Yiddish theater star Molly Picon, beautifully restored by the National Center for Jewish Film, and introduced by NCJF co-director Lisa Rivo.  "I could see that again tomorrow," my father said.

Other fiction standouts included Diane Kurys' typically slick and attractively-cast "For a Woman," another in her autobiographical series, starring Benoit Magimel and Nicholas Duvauchelle (both hubba-hubba, as far as I'm concerned), and the lush, pillowy Melanie Thierry. Set in Lyon just post-war, the set design and costumes were an additional pleasure (which I refuse to call guilty).  The Israeli "Funeral at Noon," about an unhappy 50s housewife (played by the compelling Hilla Vidor) stuck in a joyless marriage in the sticks, was spare and unsettling.  I liked "Super Women," about a group of cashiers, mostly Russian immigrants, who work in an Israeli supermarket, but many (including my father) found it too arty and unsettling, especially its ambiguous ending.  It was amusing to see the very modern actress, Neta Riskin, who starred in "Anywhere Else," about an Israeli girl studying in Germany who visits her fractious family in Israel, turn up as an Orthodox Jewess in "Shtisel," an Israeli nighttime TV soap opera, three episodes of which were shown. We agreed that we were hooked and would return if the festival showed more episodes, as they said they might. "Transit," which followed the travels of undocumented Filipinos in Israel, whose Hebrew-speaking children face deportation, also unsettled its audience, with its depiction of an unfeeling Israeli bureaucracy.  Israeli spies, tracking down Muslim terrorists in Buenos Aires in 1994 with dogged determination (and propulsive filmmaking) in "God's Slave," was more satisfying.

This article is related to: San Francisco, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Festivals

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.