The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, or SFJFF, or Jewfest North (to distinguish it from Jewfest South and East), or just Jewfest (by virtue of its seniority and size, it's the reigning Jewish Film Festival in the Bay Area/world)...well, its 2011 version (31st edition) started last night. And of course I was back up at the Castro for it.
It started off with the opening night thanks and introductions, with the highlight being the special thanks to Executive Director Peter Stein, who is stepping down after this festival to pursue other projects. On a personal note, I'm a big fan of Stein's, and was honored to join in the standing ovation he received. This is his 8th year in charge, which is most of my tenure as an audience member. So for me SFJFF has practically always been a Peter Stein affair, and whether we've celebrated crowd-pleasers or gutted our way through controversial screenings, he has always been professional, intelligent, and the sweetest guy in the world. Here's to you, Peter, and best of luck in your endeavors.
Okay, on to the movies:
We kicked off with a stellar family drama MABUL (THE FLOOD). While 12 year old Yoni Yoshko practices for his Bar Mitzvah, his entire family is steeped in sin. His mom--a preschool teacher--is having an affair, his dad--a grounded crop-dusting pilot--is too stoned to notice, and Yoni himself is selling homework to his classmates. Enter into this already broken dynamic Topher, his older, developmentally disabled brother, and you figure things will fall apart. And they kind of do. Yoni, not yet even a man, finds himself taking care of Topher more and more often--not what he wants to do. Add to that a threat of expulsion, harassment by bullies, and young love and Yoni hardly has time to concentrate on his Torah portion. He's practicing to read the story of Noah, and Topher repeats his chanting like a parrot, and starts taking the Noah story to heart. And like the Noah and the flood story, he might just provide the right sort of cataclysmic upheaval to wash away the old sins and give everyone a new start. Solid, multi-faceted drama
And then the late show (a new thing for opening night) was an exclusive screening of the first Israeli horror film (at least that's how it's being marketed), RABIES. It starts as if we're already halfway into a horror film, with a girl trapped in a box underground and a man (we find out shortly he's her brother) trying to rescue her, failing, and running off for help. Enter a car full of young people (2 guys, 2 girls) out for some fun, who run into the frantic brother. The two guys follow him to try to rescue the sister while the two girls call for the cops. Enter two cops--one a sadistic rapist and the other two wrapped up in his failing marriage and partner loyalty to stop him. And now sit back and watch nearly everyone die in brutal, genre classic manners. And the fun of the movie is admiring it's genre chops, clearly a result of love of not just horror classics, but cult/camp classics. It's got the comedy and the gore. The story maybe tries to go too many places (when romantic jealousy trumps survival instincts it lost me momentarily), but the horror elements are always enjoyable. And without giving anything away, it ends on a comic note I loved, although it was abrupt and wrapped up nothing. It felt like walking into a good horror film about 20 minutes too late, and leaving just as early. But with this talent, I'm eager to see what director Aharon Keshales does next.
Total Running Time: 187 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,859