First up, FAMOUS NATHAN, a story of a titan of hot dog industry, and also a story of a man, his friends, his employees, and his family, all told by his grandson Lloyd Handwerker. He uses a mix of archival footage, home video (sometimes not in the greatest condition) and new interviews to tell the rags-to-riches story of a near-illiterate immigrant who worked hard; sold hot dogs; cared about price, quality, and most of all people; and through that built an empire. It's also the story of sibling rivalry, as one brother continues in the business but the other (the director's father) leaves and actually runs a competing Snack Time restaurant for a while. It's a bit of a roller coaster ride at times (appropriate for Coney Island, I suppose) and in the end I really, really wanted a hot dog. BTW, for theater concession food, the hot dogs at the Cinearts Palo Alto are not too bad.
Next up was a great documentary (on a side note, I was recounting my favorite movies of the festival a few days ago to a work friend, and I stopped and realized I was just rattling off all the documentaries. So good job with the documentary selections this year!) AUTISM IN LOVE follows the lives of 4 people who are on the autism spectrum ranging from Rain Man-esque to sort of awkward Aspies (call back to the other autistic-person-seeks-romantic-partner movie I saw this year) who are in various different stages of romance. There's the frustrated guy who just wants to fit in. There's the loving, devoted husband who is dealing with his wife dying of cancer, but can't express himself right. And then there's the couple who have put up with their quirks for several years and might just be ready to take it to the next level. What struck me is that their romantic troubles aren't a whole lot different from mine (well, I've never dealt with a dying spouse, but the others...) Far from being oddballs, I thought their troubles were so relatable by the end I started wondering if maybe I'm on the spectrum but just haven't been diagnosed. It's my understanding that that fact that I empathized so well probably means I'm not...
Anyway, up next was a nice little crowd-pleaser, DOUGH. Nat (Jonathan Pryce) is an English kosher baker who runs the little bakery that his father and grandfather ran before him. His son doesn't want the business, though, he's a successful lawyer. And the big chain store across the street wants to buy him out--and the whole block. But he stands firm, even though he needs a little help. that help comes in the form of his cleaner's son Ayyash, a Muslim immigrant from Darfur. Of course there's mistrust, and of course that mistrust thaws. But Ayyash is also a small-time pot dealer (smart enough not to smoke his own, he's just looking for some money) and wacky hijinx ensue when he accidentally stashes his pot in the dough...and the resulting baked goods are a huge hit. A funny, reasonably charming film that's not too heavy and doesn't challenge you to think too much. I'm not surprised this was the San Francisco opening night film.
Next up was PAPA WAS NOT A ROLLING STONE, an autobiographical narrative film from French director Sylvie Ohayon. With a nice mix of comedy and drama, the story is all about Stéphanie “Fifi” Mortier, a high school student who lives in one of the poor suburbs where French Jews and Muslims co-inhabit apartment buildings. At least Fifi is a good student, so she has some options. Maybe dance. Maybe go to university. Maybe just have fun sexy times with her boyfriend all the time... After all, getting impregnated by a Muslim is kind of a family tradition that led to...her existing. Meanwhile she has to deal with her flaky mother and abusive step-father. It all adds up to a pretty good coming of age film, with an excellent mix of drama and comedy.
And finally I ended the night and the weekend with RED LEAVES, a fascinating and well-made fictional look into the lives of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Patriarch Meseganio Tadela (Debebe Eshetu) makes a fateful decision--he sells his apartment and instead of buying a new one he announces that he will simply live with his children. All of them, in their different apartments, shuttling back and forth. After all, he's the patriarch, isn't that his right? Well, his children aren't quite as pleased with his plan as he is. They all have their lives, families, and more of an Israeli lifestyle than an Ethiopian one. The movie isn't narrative driven, it's more of a slice-of-life (which I know bored some of my friends) but just look at the Eshetu's expressive, weary face and director Bazi Gete's probing, documentary-style direction and feel the loss of culture that Meseganio feels.
And that was the end of the first weekend of SFJFF.
Total Running Time: 445
My Total Minutes: 404,516