Saturday, July 28, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 7

Just four movies on the Castro closing night. But the festival is far from over--it continues another weekend in San Francisco (at the JCCSF,) a full week in Berkeley (Roda Theatre) and Palo Alto (CineArts,) an extra weekend in San Rafael (Rafael Film Center), and for the first time an extra bonus Monday in Oakland (Piedmont Theater.)

My day started with a loving look at a Florida retirement community, KING'S POINT. Five Jewish seniors, most (if not all?) from New York, pontificating on life, love, friendship, and aging.

By the way, I don't want to say this festival has an elderly population, but when they asked everyone who's on Facebook to stand up, I was the only one.

I also don't want to say this festival has an elderly population, but it's the only festival I know that asks you to remember them in your will.

Those weren't jokes, they were absolutely true.

Okay, back to the movies with WHITE: A MEMOIR IN COLOR, a new self-exploration documentary by Joel Katz (who made the excellent STRANGE FRUIT which played at the festival in 2002.) This time, he's making a very personal exploration of race issues in his life, from the point of view of a white man. Of course, he is Jewish and in some places at some times that wouldn't have counted as "white" but he's pale-skinned, doesn't look too Jewish, and it's present day America, so Jew = White. His wife Leah, while from a very similar Jewish background, is more olive-skinned. But again, she passes as white. His father was actually one of the few white professors at Howard University (he started the Chemical Engineering department) and was there during the Civil Rights movement. He supported Civil Rights (part of the reason he went to teach at Howard,) but it still became kind of uncomfortable when a lot of the rhetoric turned in the "blame whitey" direction...and he was the only whitey on campus. Now back to modern days--Joel and Leah are looking to adopt, and the application gets very specific on questions of race. Which is unsettling, but it makes sense. You have to understand that two white parents with a black child will get looks when they're out in public. And there's the question of can white parents provide a black child with a connection to his or her heritage? And how important is that? Is Curious George a slave allegory and is it appropriate for a white parent to read it to a black child? This is the jumping off point, and the movie asks more questions than it can answer. The most interesting point is how "color blindness"--which was the goal when I was a kid--also blinds a white person (like myself) to the advantages afforded them on the basis of his whiteness. Even if official opportunities are equal, white people are more likely to be born in better circumstances where it's easier to take advantage of those opportunities. Even if you weren't born rich but were in the middle class, would your parents have made as much money--even with the same skills--if they were black? If they did, on the same income could they have purchased a home for the same price and got a mortgage with the same low interest rate if they weren't white? While (according to the movie, I didn't independently look up the statistics) the income gap between whites and blacks has closed somewhat, the wealth gap is still pretty big--on the order of 10 to 1, meaning the average white baby is born into 10 times the wealth of the average black baby.

My big takeaway is this: That while color blindness was the goal of my generation when we were growing up, it's not enough. And yes, that means the goalposts have changed and that can be frustrating to some people. But when your goal is to constantly improve, you have to keep changing the goalposts. Otherwise, you don't keep moving. That's how continual improvement works.

Next up was another personal family documentary, this time a detective story looking into the past. THE FLAT starts with director Arnon Goldfinger cleaning out his recently deceased grandmother's flat in Tel Aviv. In it, he discovers some old copies of Der Angriff, one of the worst Nazi propaganda newspapers of the day. Specifically, the were copies that featured the travelogue of Baron von Mildenstein, and his pro-Zionist series on "A Nazi Visits Palestine." He was the leader of the 1930's Nazi support for Zionism (well, they wanted to get rid of the Jews, and sending them to Palestine was an okay solution.) And his companion on those journeys were a Jewish couple named Kurt and Gerda Tuchler. And they happen to be Arnon's grandparents. This bit of the family history had been kept secret before, but Arnon delves in and makes some remarkable finds. He meets Mildenstein's daughter, he delves into the official records, and he discovers there's more to the story even than she knows. I won't go into details, but it plays out like a riveting detective story but also works as an exploration of the importance of the past, and whether it is best to leave some details forgotten.

Then next up was a narrative (oddly, the only non-documentary of the day,) SHARQIYA. It's a story of Bedouin life, and particularly Kamel and his family. Kamel is a proud Israeli Bedouin. He served his time in the army, he works as a security guard in a bus station. He's also a self-taught electrician who fixes TV's and DVD players for his little village, where he lives with his brother Khaled and sister-in-law Nadia. It's a tough life, but he's getting by. Only problem is, they didn't have an official government permit to build on the land (even though his grandfather lived there since before statehood) so the government puts a demolition order on their house (really just a simple shack of wood and corrugated aluminum siding.) It's a subtle and moving story, with excellent acting (by all non-professional actors) and does a great job of showing the uneasy tension between Israel and its Bedouin citizens.

And finally, one more documentary, and another music movie (Jews and Tunes, a theme of the festival.) Did you know that "Save the Last Dance For Me" was written by a guy who couldn't dance. That was Doc Pomus, a pudgy Brooklyn Jew crippled by polio. And the movie  A.K.A. DOC POMUS speeds through his remarkable life and the remarkable list of songs (more than 1,000) that he wrote. It's just one of those stories that seems too weird to be true (I can't say too "good" because there's a lot of sadness in it.) Crippled by polio, he found a life through music. First he was a blues singer (where he surprised a lot of people that a white Jewish kid could sing the blues so well) and then a song fact, a verified hitmaker. He was royalty in the famed Brill Building, until the singer-songwriters of the 60's sort of killed that industry (oddly, Bob Dylan much later came to him for help writing a song.) He was a hitmaker for Elvis Presley, particularly in his movies years (not only did he write "Save the Last Dance For Me" without being able to dance, he wrote "Viva Las Vegas" without ever visiting Vegas.) And...well, I don't want to spoil too much of the movie. I'll just say I had never heard of Doc Pomus before, and learning about him and his tragic but triumphant life was a treat.

And as a bonus treat, we got a brief concert of Doc Pomus fans by local Bay Area musicians. I honestly don't know the music scene very well, but they were Andy Cabic (who admitted he was named after Andy William--Doc Pomus wrote his hit "Can't Get Used to Losing You,") Eric D. Johnson, Kelly Stoltz, and Sonny Smith. And they did a fantastic job with his biggest hits, of course ending on "Save the Last Dance For Me."

And that was it for Jewfest North at the Castro. I'll be splitting time between Berkeley and Palo Alto, just catching up on stuff I missed or stuff that didn't play at the Castro.

Total Running Time: 367 minutes
My Total Minutes: 294,300

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