Saturday, July 25, 2015

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 2

I suppose I should be a little more professional (I do get press tickets here after all) and call it by its right name--the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Okay, this will be the only time I call it by my nickname for it. 

So anyway, I skipped opening night to catch the Thrillpeddlers' Club Inferno (and because the opening film will be playing later at a time that's convenient for me) but I was up at the Castro for a couple of films Friday night (ummmm...yeah, instead of Seder. I remember when this festival didn't play anything on Friday night, but that's beside the point.) A couple of good French films last Friday night.

THE ART DEALER is a story about art stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis prior to and during WWII. But it tells the story as a sort of crime thriller, with intrigue, mystery, and political obstruction. Esther's husband is an art dealer. He brings home a beautiful painting to research and appraise it. By sheer coincidence, her father is there and reacts to it. A little searching, and she finds out that this beautiful (and expensive) painting used to belong to her grandparents. And her searching leads to much more. Up to 200 paintings that were...well, maybe stolen, maybe (semi-)legally transferred to her great-uncle. The intrigue gets a little complicated, but it involves Nazis (of course) but also collaborators, and a French government that's unwilling and uninterested in settling the accounts and returning stolen art to the rightful heirs (in no small part because that art has ended up in some pretty famous museums.) As Esther digs further, sinister forces close around her, and threatens her family, career, sanity, and maybe even her life. A cool, neo-noir take on a fascinating issue of injustices long left unresolved.

And then ONCE IN A LIFETIME is a fresh take on the "inspiring teacher" genre. Madame Guégen has taught for 20 years, and for some reason she still likes it, despite an uncontrollable class who can bring a substitute teacher to tears. So she challenges them to take on an after-school project, to enter the annual contest about World War II and the Shoah sponsored by the French education ministry. The subject is the experience of children and adolescents in Nazi concentration camps. And her students don't know where to begin. Many are Muslim, and have a very different opinion of Jews, almost all are afraid of failure, and none of them work well with others. But sure enough, her persistence, patience, encouragement, and a little discipline transforms the kids. Which would all be kind of cliche, except that it's portrayed with such realism and sincerity. It definitely helps that Ahmed Dramé, who plays one of the students, actually lived this. The story is based on his experience, and it fosters a reality that makes it all work. It means that when they visit a Holocaust memorial or speak to a survivor, or are shocked by pictures they find...it's not just triggers for an emotional response in the audience, it's the reality of kids who haven't thought much about this history to wake up. Seeing a kid get angry when he finds out the French could've saved their Jewish children (the Germans really didn't want them) but didn't carries an intensity that probably wouldn't have worked as well if it didn't earn the realism by then. A very good film.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 403,616

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