A good 11 days or so after "Closing Night" the festival finally ended with their first day ever at Oakland's Piedmont Theatre, and the place was packed (so expect them back there for more than just one day next year.) I caught all four shows there.
The first show started with the silhouette-animated short 55 SOCKS. A story about Nazi occupied Holland, famine, and 4 women who unravel a bedspread to knit socks and trade them for food. Very cute, with a funny twist.
That was the lead in to the documentary feature, BESA: THE PROMISE, all about the brave and heroic efforts Albania went through to rescue and protect Jews from the Holocaust. King Zog, who doesn't just have one of the coolest names ever, but was also the last Muslim King of a European country, ordered Visas given to any German Jew who requested one, no questions asked. Further, all Jews residing in Albania would be given citizenship. That's pretty important to note, as there are many stories of brave, moral individuals rescuing Jews while living under collaborationist governments. But Albania, from the top down, really resisted the Nazis. The title comes from the Albanian word "besa" which kind of means "promise" but much, much more. Like an oath, but one you take really, really seriously. They say things like, 'I would rather let my children die than break my besa.' Anyway, this spirit of hospitality and besa inspired the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews. And in 2002, Jewish-American photographer Norman Gershman was looking for a project to counter the post-9/11 anti-Muslim hatred he saw around him, and so he traveled to Albania to document these stories and photograph the Albanian heroes (or, if they were no longer with us, their children.) The interesting and tragic thing is immediately following WWII, Albania full under the iron curtain and so they were cut off from the rest of the world and couldn't keep contact with the Jews they had saved (many of whom moved to Israel, of course.) Only some 50 years later could they re-establish contact, and some did in the course of this movie. Most moving is Rexhep Hoxha, the son of a man who had hidden the Abadjens in his home. Rexhep still had the volume of prayer books the Abadjens had left when they fled to Israel (afraid that being found with them at a checkpoint would doom them.) Rexhep returns them to the son of the Abadjens (who was just 12 when they hid in Albania) who bursts into tears before explaining he never cries. Pretty powerful stuff, and all because of simple humanity.
The next show started with the short CATHERINE THE GREAT. A beautifully animated story...about sex trafficking. I don't really want to get into questions of the morality of making a movie about something so awful. Or the aesthetics of making said movie beautiful. But I will say that there was some loud booing in the audience. What's significant about that is it was actual booing, not the hissing you get everywhere else in the Bay Area and drives me crazy. I prefer booing over hissing, so thank you, Oakland, for keeping it real.
Anyway, that was the lead-in for the light Russian coming-of-age comedy MY DAD IS BARYSHNIKOV. Boris Fishkin loves ballet. He is even enrolled in the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, even though he's kind of scrawny, isn't a great dance, and isn't strong enough to actually lift his partner. But he's obsessed with Mikhail Baryshnikov, even though as a traitor and defector even saying the name Baryshnikov is forbidden. Meanwhile, this is the mid-80's, Perestroika is well on its way, and more and more Western tourists are showing up in Moscow. So, with the help of his older friends--including a paraplegic veteran--he sells black-market souvenirs (especially Soviet military regalia) to tourists. And when he learns that his mother went to the dance academy with Baryshnikov, and one of his friends mentions that he has the same face, he decides that his long-absent father is actually Baryshnikov. Wacky hijinx, of course, ensue.
Next up, another short and feature. This time the short, B-BOY, is a documentary about Eli, a thirteen year old Jewish boy who excels at yeshiva and at breakdancing. In fact, he's part of a cross-cultural competitive breakdancing crew, and they all show up at his Bar Mitzvah to breakdance to the Hava Nagila. Crazy cool.
And then the feature, OFF WHITE LIES. It's set in the 2006 war with Lebanon, when Hezbollah was firing rockets at the north of Israel. Libby is sent to spend some time with her father in Israel (her parents split up, and she grew up mostly with her mom in Los Angeles.) Once she gets there, she learns that her father--a sort of irresponsible inventor (his proudest invention is half-sized cigarettes. You know, for if you just want a really quick smoke.)--is sort of...between...homes. Yeah, he's homeless, but a television report about a family from the south hosting northern war refugees gives them an idea. They claim to be refugees and find a family in the south to host them. It's just a little white lie. Or an off-white lie. And it's pretty funny, and shows the unique Jewish/Israeli capacity to find humor in wartime.
And finally, the night and the festival ended with the funny and self-indulgent French comedy IN CASE I NEVER WIN THE GOLDEN PALM. Renaud Cohen last made a feature film over ten years ago (ONCE WE GROW UP, which opened the 2001 SFJFF.) So now he has made a film starring himself (renamed Simon Cohen) as a filmmaker who hasn't been able to make a feature film in over a decade. He goes to a director's support group. He talks to actors (I don't know French actors all that well, but my understanding is a lot of actors in the movie are playing a fictional version of themselves.) On a weird dare, he shaves his head and discovers a weird lump on his head. Fearing cancer, he decides to throw himself into what may very well be his last movie ever--self-financed and self-produced, starring himself as himself, his wife and children as his wife and children, and his parents as his parents. It's the story of a struggling director who discovers he has cancer and decides to make his last movie. It's a playful self-satire and industry satire that sort of spins you around wondering how much is really autobiographical and how much is satire. And it's just a lot of fun.
And that's it. It's finally over. Now I can finally rest a bit.
Total Running Time: 371 minutes
My Total Minutes: 296,831