The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival moved south to Palo Alto (and East to Berkeley, but who cares about that?) last Saturday, and I...was busy elsewhere (Go Quakes!) But I was there for a full day on Sunday--four movies.
First up was FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED, which I saw with my first cousin once removed who lives in Palo Alto. Director Alan Berliner, this year's Freedom Of Expression Award recipient, turns the camera on his family, specifically Edwin Honig, his cousin once removed who was a celebrated poet and translator (knighted by the king of Spain) but who is now wasting away from Alzheimer's dementia--hence the "once removed" takes on a double meaning. Honig gave him permission (when it first started setting in) to record the process, and the result is this movie. Several times it's a little difficult to watch (especially when his deepest memory--of his 3 year old little brother dying while running after him across the street--surfaces) and we were warned before the movie that this would be the case. But I found it surprisingly funny. Late in the movie Berliner tells Honig he's proud of how he (Honig) "never stopped being a poet." And that is very true. No matter how much Honig forgets, no matter how many times he has to be reminded of who Berliner or other family members are, he always has a love of playing with words. Even when he can't form a rhyme more complicated than "Up, down, and all around" there's a joy in just saying those words. Or at the very end, when he's not even verbal, there's a beat to his grunts and moans that...works. Don't get me wrong, Alzheimer's is horrible, and this movie shows it. But it also shows that there's some core to our sense of self, that we're more than the sum of our memories. Or, if we live our whole lives thinking we're the sum of our memories, what is left when our memories are taken away? Because there's still something there, and it's pretty amazing.
Next up was THE ZIGZAG KID, the opening night film of the festival but I waited until it was conveniently down south. It's a funny, exciting, sprawling action-comedy about Nono, the police inspector's son who always seems to get into trouble. After his latest antics ruin a friend's bar mitzvah, he is sent to live with his boring, strict uncle. But a mysterious letter left in his luggage sends him on a wild adventure with his new mentor. An adventure that pairs him up with the world's greatest thief (who always leaves a zig-zag charm in place of the treasure he steals, hence the title.) And one that sends him in search of a famous singer. And it sends him on a search to discover his past. But let's not get too serious, this movie is about pure fun. Adventure, crime, romance, and discovery. Very cool.
Then we switched gears again for SOLDIER ON THE ROOF, a verite-style documentary about Jewish settlers in Hebron on the West Bank. Filmmaker Esther Hertog lived with the settlers for three years, and the result is this movie. She steps back and lets the settlers tell their own story. We see them talk about faith, about the importance of this land (it's the site of Abraham's tomb) and about the wonderful Jewish community they have there. And they talk about how much they hate their Arab neighbors. Jewish kids throw rocks at them and taunt them to retaliate, knowing that the soldiers will step in and save them. The soldiers know this, too, and they're really interesting. They see their job as keeping the peace, and they know usually the Jews are the instigators (especially the children) and they actually work pretty hard to be fair and reasonable...up to a point. They're still there to protect the Jewish settlers, but more importantly to keep things from escalating and erupting. Not using force is the goal. On the Arab side...well, it's hard not to feel sympathy for them, but they do push back in their own way. In the opening scene one old Jew is trying to show a hillside view of the city for the camera. Arabs come, insist they have a right to stand there, too, and constantly block him from view and chant over what he's trying to say. And I know that's pretty minor compared to what they put up with, but it just comes off as a dick move on their part. Ultimately, everyone gets to show what they are, and it's not that pretty on either side, but it is fascinating.
And finally, I ended the day with ALL IN, a romantic comedy from Argentina (by the way, that's quite a few mood swings--documentary about a guy deteriorating from Alzheimer's, kid's adventure-comedy, documentary about Jewish West Bank settlers, and romantic comedy. A tip of my cap to the programmer who came up with that.) Uriel is a single father of two who runs the family finance company. He's also an accomplished ladies man, and an excellent poker player. After all, they both take the same skill--bluffing. But when he runs into his old girlfriend Gloria they rekindle what they had, and it's nice...except that he tells a few lies that will come back to haunt him--like that he's a show promoter who is working on reuniting their old favorite band. See, he also has a habit of making promises that he doesn't quite keep (like getting his daughter a fish after he bought her fish tank.) But with some fast talking, quick thinking, and the help of a punk-rock rabbi, he might just make everything work. Very funny.
Total Running Time: 366 minutes
My Total Minutes: 336,172