However many days that was, I ended on Sunday, August 9. The festival actually continued for one final day in San Rafael, but I'm done.
4 movies at the Jewish Cultural Center of San Francisco (JCCSF) last Sunday. Here we go:
First up was an interesting pair of ~hour-long historical documentaries. And not just documentaries about historical events, but documentaries about the writing and recording of history, and who gets to do it.
The first one was HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS. Melville J. Herskovits was an American anthropologist. He was a Jew, and through his work at Northwestern University practically invented the field of African American studies (starting with his book The American Negro, published in 1928). That's right, a Jew was the founding scholar behind African American studies. At the time, anthropology was really the study of race, with physical measurements of body parts and racist theories of how Caucasians are the superior race dominating thought. It was a racist world that gave no favors to blacks or Jews, so in a sense it was a somewhat natural, if controversial choice of research for him. The movie also made the interesting point that Jews in that time had no homeland, so especially American Jews were very interested in figuring out how they fit into society (this is put forth as a reason for him to pursue anthropology). Beyond the choice of studying black people, Herscovits really caused a revolution by showing how old theories of race were wrong and pioneering the field of cultural relativism--that you can't judge one culture by the standards of another. And in particular, he found distinct cultural links between black Americans and Africans--e.g., the way they moved (dance particularly). It's an interesting story, and while praising an interesting man, it also raised tricky questions about who has the right to define a people and tell their history.
That question is explored more directly is JERUSALEM CUTS. A documentary about pictures, and in particular the 1948 battle for control of Jerusalem (when the Jews were kicked out by the Arabs, before they later came back and recaptured it). For the longest time, the only pictures seen from the conflict came from John Phillips, a British photojournalist embedded with the Arab army but who was sympathetic to the Jewish side. His photos, published in Life magazine, showed defeated Jewish refugees, arrogant Arab soldiers, and (most striking) Arab families looting the abandoned Jewish homes. But this movie questions that telling of history. Ali Zaarour is a Palestinian man, perhaps the only one with a camera at the time. And he took several pictures. His son remembers the stories, but doesn't have the album. Amazingly, the album exists, in the archives of the Israel under "Arab sources". The filmmakers follow Zaarour's son as he looks over the album (eventually the album was released to him, after the scenes shot for the movie). This album, of course, tells a different story--proud Arab soldiers stand in one photo just hours before Phillips photographed Jewish refugees walking through the same arch. There's a the third point of view in the movie--a fictional point of view in the first successful Israeli film, HILL 24 DOESN'T ANSWER. Producer Jack Padwa, a proud Zionist, rewatches this 1955 film while ruminating on how children today don't know this story, and how their history is so important. It's a quaint, ironic counterpoint to a movie that's all about how history can be so hard to pin down.
And speaking of history, the next film was a rather daunting achievement in that.
I AM VON HÖFLER
VARIATION ON WERTHER
(punctuated like that. The title is two lines) is Péter Forgács’s documentary re-telling of practically the whole life of Tibor Von Höfler. From his birth as the son of a Christian leather tanner and a Jewish woman. The whole thing is 160 minutes long, told in two parts with a brief intermission. Tibor Von Höfler was a chemist, a womanizer, a disappointment to his mother (well, she's Jewish--all her sons were disappointments). He had a son out of wedlock, finally married (a different woman) many years later. He was estranged from his brother for many years. Oh yeah, and he witnessed Germany invading Hungary, the institution of Jewish laws, the Germans losing the war, Hungary becoming communist, and finally the fall of communism. And it's told mostly through home movies (oh yeah, Tibor was fond of making home movies) with old letters telling the narration (so many are either his baby-mama begging him for money, or his mother nagging him about what a disappointment he is). Oh yeah, and as for the "Variation on Werther" part of the title--legend has it that an old relative was the real inspiration for Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther". Perhaps if I knew that story, Tibor's life would have resonance, too. As it is, from perusing the Wikipedia article, perhaps the only parallel is both stories are told through letters.
Next up was perhaps the sweetest program in the whole festival, starting with the short. MAMA, L'CHAIM! (TO LIFE!) It's a short documentary about 95 year old woman who survived the Holocaust but still has a zest for life and a joy and optimism she shares with her son who takes care of her.
That was the lead-in for THE GIFT TO STALIN. Set in (and made in) Kazakhstan by the award-winning filmmaker Rustem Abdrashov (now I have to find his REBIRTH ISLAND and watch it). In 1949, Stalin was shipping Jews out to Siberia. Little Sasha is one of them. At a stop in the middle of the Kazakh steppes, the Russian operators unload the dead. Sasha is hiding among them, and old Kasym (veteran actor Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev) notices and rescues him by not pointing him out. And so Sasha becomes the adopted child of a small village, raised as a Muslim among Kasym, kindly and beautiful Verka (the wife of a traitor), Polish doctor Ezhik, and a gang of orphans. In that town, they have to avoid corrupt officials and a truly nasty cop (Verka has to "take one for the team"--so to speak--a few times). Meanwhile, the whole town knows the news of Stalin's upcoming 70th birthday, and the news is that whoever comes up with the best present will get to deliver it to Stalin personally. So Sasha makes it his goal to come up with the best present ever, so he can meet Stalin and ask him to spare his parents. It's a sweet story of a village raising a child, and an interesting look at finiding where you belong. There's a framing device where the middle-aged Sasha recounts his childhood while walking through the market in modern Jerusalem, and a recurring motif of a lone goat--removed from his flock--mirrors Sasha's situation.
And finally, the last film (for me) in the festival was EMPTY NEST, an Argentinian comedy of writing, fantasy, and middle-aged male angst. Leonardo Vindel is a famous playwright. His children are grown up and gone. His wife Martha is still beautiful, but they don't quite see eye-to-eye anymore. Mostly because while he's starting to feel old, she's going back to school and partying with much younger friends. So he escapes to his fantasy life, where people burst into song around him and he's having an affair with his dentist's assisstant. And he discusses this fantasy life with his imaginary friend (who advises him to fantasize more). Meanwhile, he's avoiding reading his Israeli son-in-law's novel, despite the universally great reviews. Finally they (Leonardo and Martha) take a trip to Israel to visit their daughter and their famous author son-in-law, and a little bit of floating in the Dead Sea brings his mind back to an okay place.
And that's it. It's over now. For the record, here's the list of films I didn't see at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival:
CHRONICLE OF A KIDNAP
GDANSKI RAILROAD STATION
GILAD SHALIT: 2 YEARS IN CAPTIVITY
A HISTORY OF ISRAELI CINEMA
MENACHEM AND FRED (which will play at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival)