Though it has programmed its share of controversial fare over the years, the 39th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will open this Thursday with perhaps the most non-controversial movie imaginable: A documentary about Fiddler on the Roof (see details below), probably the most beloved, not to mention inescapable, stage musical ever.
Eleven days later the fest will wade into more characteristically political waters with The Red Sea Diving Resort, a fact-based drama with Chris Evans, Alessandro Nivola, Ben Kingsley and other luminaries. It portrays the efforts about four decades ago to smuggle Jewish refugees from religious persecution in Ethiopia to safety in Israel.
That’s hardly the end of JFF 2019, however, since as usual the event’s Castro Theatre residency (July 18-28) will be overlapped and/or followed by ones elsewhere around the Bay Area: July 20-25 at Palo Alto’s Cinearts, July 25-Aug. 1 at Berkeley’s Albany Twin, and Aug. 2-4 at both Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre and Marin’s Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. Here’s a survey of some highlights:
Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles
Once the longest-running show in Broadway history (its original hitch was for eight years), Fiddler on the Roof is no longer even in the top 10. But you could still make a case for it as possibly the most popular stage musical ever, given numerous touring editions, innumerable amateur and school productions, multiple major revivals, enduring international success, and so forth. It never became an “old” musical in the way that most other hugely popular ones did, and it will surely still be raking in the royalties when Wicked, Cats and even A Chorus Line finally fade into the theatrical past.
This opening-night documentary looks at the 45-year phenomenon adapted from Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye stories, which seemed one of Broadway’s riskier gambles in 1964 yet has played continuously around the world since. Admirers from Stephen Sondheim to Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda are among those discussing its influence in a film that also draws upon rich, diverse archival materials.
Other documentaries of note in the program run a subject gamut encompassing underwater photography (Picture Of His Life), the Catskills resort circuit’s craze for Afro-Cuban music (The Mamboniks), “the Palestine question” (Advocate, Afterward), the Holocaust (Made in Auschwitz, You Only Die Twice), anti-Semitism on the left (This Is Personal), expanding U.S. Hasidic communities (City of Joel), late Russian-Jewish emigre actor Anton Yelchin (Love, Antosha), cool jazz (It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story), current immigration currents (The Passengers, The Rabbi Goes West), and more—including the self-explanatory politician portraits Golda and King Bibi.
Curtiz and Carl Laemmle
Scratch a racist of any stripe—amazing how easy they are to find these days—and it generally takes no time at all to get them parroting age-old conspiracy theories about how the Jews control “everything,” from international economics (of course) to Hollywood. Well, they’re at least somewhat right about that last part: Perhaps precisely because the movie industry wasn’t initially considered “respectable,” Jewish entrepreneurs, executives and artists got a firm early foothold, and continue to be arguably better-represented than in many other professions. (Even though some distanced themselves from any ethic or religious identity by changing their names, particularly back in the day.) These new features look at two of the greatest such contributors to Hollywood’s first decades.
Curtiz is a biographical drama about Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian expat who became one of Warner Brothers’ leading directors, helming classic vehicles for Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Bogart, Cagney, Joan Crawford (notably Mildred Pierce) and others. Fellow countryman Tamas Yvan Topolanszky’s debut feature is a B&W period piece that re-creates the conflicts behind the scenes of 1942’s Casablanca—now considered a world classic, as well as Curtiz’s most famed achievement. But its making was fraught with problems, from an unfinished script to the Jewish director’s own family woes, including fears (which turned out to be all too well-founded) that his relatives back in Europe were in grave danger under Nazi occupation.
James L. Freedman’s documentary Carl Laemmle celebrates the legacy of another immigrant, who went from operating nickelodeons to founding Universal Pictures, one of Hollywood’s great movie studios. When financial woes during the Great Depression (including a series of flops championed by his son Carl Jr.) forced Laemmle to sell Universal, he used that money to rescue hundreds of Jews from his native Germany—dying just days after the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, at age 72. It’s a remarkable rags-to-riches story whose successes include the launching of “Universal Monsters” Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, who almost single-handedly invented the screen horror genre.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
It’s a testament to the simultaneous “democratization” of the internet and the shrinking relevance of the written word that this documentary tribute to the late New Yorker movie reviewer has to keep explaining who Kael was and why she mattered—things that were well-known to every film lover not so long ago. But viewers under 40 may well find it weird that a professional critic (practically an insult in itself these days) in a weekly magazine not only wielded great influence, but was considered one of her era’s most significant writers.
Whether you agreed with her sometimes-controversial taste or not, Kael made reading about the movies exciting, and personal. She sought to replicate the adrenaline rush of the popular cinema itself in the headlong energy of her prose. Starting out as a repertory house and radio taste-maker in Berkeley, hers was assertive, sometimes blunt personality who not-infrequently ruffled the feathers of her editors as well as offended filmmakers. Rob Garver’s posthumous portrait is a good introduction to her work, though more knowledgable fans may puzzle over the choice of clips—some from films she wasn’t enthused or didn’t even write about.
Other films in JFF this year of particular local interest include Seder-Masochism, former SF resident Nina Paley’s first feature since the delightful Sita Sings the Blues—another animated wonder for grownups, this one bringing her impudent humor and rich visual imagination to bear on stories from the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments, it isn’t.
Fig Tree and Dolce Fine Giornata
The flight of Jews from Ethiopia depicted by an all-star cast in the closing-night U.S. production The Red Sea Diving Resort noted above is portrayed from a different angle in Aalam-Warque Davidian’s semi-autobiographical first feature, Fig Tree. Set in 1989, it focuses on a 16-year-old girl largely oblivious to the roiling political conflicts that have not yet reached her village on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. But they will, and her elders are increasingly frantic to gain passage to Israel before hit by the sectarian violence that has already terrorized Jews elsewhere in their nation. It’s a fine, subtle, complex coming-of-age story, capturing both the self-absorption of youth and the deceptive calm that precedes
Another very good foreign drama is Polish director Jacek Borcuch’s Dolce Fine Giornata, with that country’s veteran star Krystyna Janda as a Nobel-winning expat poet. Her rather idyllic life in the Tuscan countryside is imperiled when she uses a public podium to say something about terrorism—an ambiguous, poorly-contextualized statement that instantly goes “viral,” creating controversy in the worst possible sense. At once a complicated ensemble piece and an arresting portrait of bold (sometimes even obnoxious) “artistic temperament” in a politically-correct era, this is the kind of movie that doesn’t tell you what to think. Instead, its presents a number of troubling issues and thorny personalities you’ll have to sort out yourself.
Other international highlights in the program include Sameh Zoabi’s political-crossfire comedy Tel Aviv on Fire, the bittersweet French My Polish Honeymoon, sardonic Russian The Humorist, and Mexican drama Leona.
The titular character played by Nicholas Alexander is a No. Cal. high schooler who finagles his way out of another summer with his helicopter parents by proposing he visit his older sister in Manhattan. Casey (Margaret Qualley) is a college student already jadedly blase about the gender-blurred LGBTQ scene she hangs in, and which she tosses Adam sans preamble. How is virginal little bro ever going to find a girlfriend in this crowd of variably butch dykes? To his surprise, he sparks with Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez)—realizing too late that she has assumed he is a transgender person somewhere along the female-to-male transition line. Being 16, of course he’s too embarrassed to clarify her error.
Like the graphic novel by Ariel Shrag that it’s based on, Rhys Ernst’s debut feature was somewhat controversial at Sundance for the perceived tastelessness of its “mistaken identity” premise. But Adam (which does have several transgender performers in its cast) is hardly a crass exploitative of a trendy cultural theme. Instead, it’s a sweetly engaging portrait of youthful inexperience getting schooled on today’s complex gender issues in a comically unlikely (yet credibly portrayed) crash-course manner. This charming movie defuses a lot of topics older viewers may perceive as a political minefield.
Additional titles of gay interest in JFF 2019 include the documentaries Latter Day Jew, about a Mormon-raised midwestern queer comedian’s religious conversion at age 35, and Army of Lovers in the Holy Land, which centers on the Swedish electropop band’s frontman Jean-Pierre Barda and his decision to “return” to Israel as a man of French-Algerian Jewish heritage.
The 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs Thurs/18-Sun 28 at the Castro Theatre in SF. It also plays through August 4 at various Palo Alto, Albany, Oakland and San Rafael locations. See www.sfjff.org for complete details.