Sunday, August 4, 2013

Jason goes to SFJFF--Wednesday July 31

I was back at the Castro for two more SFJFF movies last Wednesday, starting with the highest-selling show in the history of the festival.

First up was the short SHANGHAI STRANGERS by Joan Chen. I had already seen it at CAAMFest, and here's what I wrote then:
SHANGHAI STRANGERS, directed by Joan Chen. Christmas Eve, Shanghai. A brief power outage, a British man and a Chinese woman get to talking. He compliments her child, she reveals something to him that she's never told anyone. But somehow this stranger is just the right person to take her confession.
Yeah, that's all true but I skipped right over the Jewish content. Her confession is about an affair she had with a man whom she was showing an old apartment--an apartment with ties to the Jews who lived in Shanghai in the middle of the 20th century. In fact, Shanghai--a war torn city that people were fleeing from--kept taking in Jewish refugees long after all other ports refused them. A pretty powerful and beautifully shot movie.

And then the feature, AMERICAN JERUSALEM: JEWS AND THE MAKING OF SAN FRANCISCO. San Francisco has a large--and largely secular--Jewish community. But it doesn't have a "Jewish" neighborhood. That's because the Jewish community came with the origins of San Francisco--as part of the 1849 gold rush. And Jews--often fleeing German kingdoms that were passing laws against them--stayed in San Francisco at twice the rate of any other group. And they were the merchants (most notably, Levi Strauss) who supplied the gold miners. Sure, they came to find gold, too, but as they were reduced to being merchants back in Europe (many places had banned Jews from owning land, so they couldn't farm) they knew just what the fast-growing tent city on the port of San Francisco needed. And the Jews there were also generally secular--young, male, and embarking on a difficult journey where keeping kosher was near impossible. So that character informed the nature of San Francisco Jews--secular and completely integrated...white, even. And the movie doesn't shy away from that. The San Francisco Jews were just as guilty as anyone of racism against the Chinese laborers. Or when Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms arrived around the turn of the century, the established Jewish community pretty much forced them to integrate and hide their Jewishness. The movie doesn't avoid these episodes, but they're overshadowed by the heroic stories of Jewish leaders. And I should say that none of them were bigger, more iconic, and more American-Dream-heroic than Adolph Sutro, the self-made millionaire who became the first Jewish mayor of a major American city, and is enough of a dominant, charismatic character that he should have his own movie just about him.

Then we were treated to a short concert by Crystal Monee Hall (currently the front woman for the Mickey Hart Band) exploring the jazzy roots of Amy Winehouse's music. And that lead into the film (originally made for Irish TV) AMY WINEHOUSE: THE DAY SHE CAME TO DINGLE. Dingle is a tiny town on the coast of Ireland that invites artists to perform in their church in front of dozens of people. The ones who choose to come usually end up loving it, and the town is awfully fond of talking about how living on the edge of the known world tends to inspire artists. Anyway, Amy Winehouse came there and gave what some regard as her greatest performance ever, and it was caught on tape. The film is about 3/4  performance (including both Amy Winehouse live in Dingle and archive footage of her self-described influences) and 1/4 interviews and people talking about her, her music, and her personality. For all the tabloid hype that was going on around her, everybody talked about how professional, courteous, and down-to-earth she was. I have to admit I never really paid attention to her until she passed away, but I've listened to her music since and she's pretty damn good. And this was a great look at her.

Total Running Time: 137 minutes
My Total Minutes: 335,711
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