Monday, July 27, 2015

Jason goes to SFJFF--Day 3

A full day of movies in beautiful (and easier for me to get to) Palo Alto. Let's jump right in.

First up WELCOME TO LEITH, a very tense documentary about a  town of 24 in North Dakota. And then a new guy moves in. He's an old man, seems kind of lonely. His name is Craig Cobb, and he started buying up lots of land all over Leith. And then people learned what he's up to. He's an infamous white supremacist and he plans to get enough like-minded people to move to Leith and take over, completely democratically. And then the town reacts. Filmmakers Michael Nichols and Christopher Walker get remarkable access to people and town proceedings, getting very candid interviews on both sides, as well anti-racist activists (like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who've had a file on him for a long time.) Tensions are clearly at a boiling point for a long time, and you just wait for something to explode, wondering who will do something really stupid and dangerous first. A fascinating story about how to react to open racism in a land that also values free speech.

And then I needed something a little lighter, so the next program delivered, starting with the short YIDLIFE CRISIS: BREAKING THE FAST. An episode of a web series, this one is about Yom Kippur in Montreal, and the struggle of poutine vs piety.

That was the lead-in to THE MUSES OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER. I haven't read Singer since I was a child, and even then we were more of a Shalom Aleichem family. But I know him as a comical Jewish writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, (one of the) only Yiddish writers to win. Of course, what I've read of him I read in English, and this documentary is the story of his translators. After Saul Bellow translated his Gimpel the Fool, he was worried it was so good that people would give Bellow the credit instead of him. So he chose to direct the translations himself--and collected what he called a "harem of translators" to do it. All women, all fairly young and pretty. And he clearly enjoyed it. Yeah, he was kind of a dirty man...or maybe that's just his legend. Many translators were sure he slept with all of them but her, and of course they can't all be right. Beyond that what I found most fascinating is how he worked closely on the English translations but intentionally changed things--not just idioms, but entire endings are different in the Yiddish and English versions. He knew in Yiddish he was writing for a Jewish audience and in English he was reaching out to a non-Jewish audience. Which makes it even more interesting that for translations to other languages (even Hebrew) he wanted the translators to start with the English version. A fascinating and funny look at the man, his translators, and the act of translation. Kind of makes me want to read (or re-read) some of his stories.

And then the next film was ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Umm...due to a scheduling goof of mine, I ended up watching this two days in a row. And it holds up to multiple screenings. Here's what I said just the day before:
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.
All I'll add is that Ahmed played Malik, who is sort of the class clown. And his transformation is perhaps the best of all (no surprise, since he co-wrote it.)

And then next up was RAISE THE ROOF, a really amazing documentary about learning, architecture, building, history, art, culture, and Jewish history in Poland. Professor Rick Brown runs Handshouse studios, where he's a big proponent in learning by doing. And his "doing" is building historical creations using traditional tools and techniques, so learning isn't just learning how to build, but learning about the life, techniques, and cultures of builders from the past. He--with his students and his wife--has built Egyptian obelisks, human-powered medieval cranes, and bushnell submarines. And now their goal is a traditional Polish wooden synagogue, with a multi-tiered roof and a beautiful, colorfully painted ceiling. All of them in existence were destroyed by the Nazis, so all they have to go on is pictures and notes from scholars at the time. Meanwhile, in Warsaw another group is building a museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews (after all, despite waves of pogroms, prior to the Nazis they had been an integral part of society for a thousand years, and it would be a shame if all they're remembered for is their end.) So a multi-year project is launched to build the roof structure, learn the paint dye techniques of the time, practice, learn, practice, learn, and eventually...created incredible beauty. Which you can see if you happen to be in Poland and go to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. But Rick and his wife Laura were there for the Q and A afterwards, and mentioned that they'd love to build another one, this time in America. So hopefully that will happen. Better yet, take their class and help build it yourself (note: I have no idea when/if that will happen. I guess follow their website for details?)

And finally, I ended the night with A LA VIE. The story starts in Auschwitz--specifically, the evacuation of Auschwitz. There Hélène is a survivor, and so is her best friend, the Dutch girl Lili. Sadly their friend Rose didn't make it. Back in Paris, she marries her old sweetheart, despite him being impotent from Nazi medical experiments. But she keeps putting ads in Yiddish international papers hoping to find Lili. And finally, one day it works. So they arrange for a weekend getaway at Berck-sur-Mer by the sea to catch up and party. And who should join them, to the surprise of Hélène, but Rose, not dead after all (in fact, living in Montreal with a pretty wealthy husband!) The brief holiday is full of surprises, drama, love, friendship, and... Hélène catches the eye of a handsome young man who works at Club Mickey, a Disney-themed seaside park for the kids. And after all, having an impotent husband, as nice as he is, has gotten to her...A sweet story about recovering from the childhood trauma of the Holocaust and finding a way to once again celebrate life.

And that was the start of the big first weekend of SFJFF for me.

Total Running Time: 456 minutes
My Total Minutes: 404,071
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