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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesJewish Film Fest returns with big names—and timely themes

Jewish Film Fest returns with big names—and timely themes

Radical feminism, gay gentrification, ethnic cleansing, plus David Straitharn, Ken Burns, Leonard Bernstein, more in 42nd installment

Though its spread of venues has been somewhat scaled back from pre-COVID days, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is otherwise back pretty much to business as usual with its 42nd annual edition. Offering some 71 individual films (including shorts and features, narratives and documentaries) from 14 countries, the schedule this year encompasses eleven days of in-person screenings at SF’s Castro Theater and Albany Twin in the East Bay this Thu/21-Sun/31. Much of the programming will also be available for streaming in the JFI Digital Screening room the following week, August 1-7.

Among highlights will be a special preview excerpt of upcoming six-hour broadcast series The US and the Holocaust (Mon/25), in which the nation’s most popular documentarian Ken Burns and colleagues examine our government’s complicated, sometimes admirable, sometimes problematic response to persecution of Jews in Europe before and during WW2. A “Center Stage” presentation is the world premiere of Remember This, an adaptation of a solo stage show with David Strathairn reprising his role as Jan Karski, a Polish professor revealed as having been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance underground in 1978’s famed documentary Shoah. The SF-born star and his directors will be present (Sun/24).

Special programming categories include “Next Wave,” whose spotlight selection is Genevieve Adams’ Simchas and Sorrows (Fri/22), a drama about generation-gapped religious and cultural values in the US today. “Take Action” draws attention to activism in various forms, with Rachel Lears’ Sundance-premiered To the End (Sat/23) following four high-profile women of color as they agitate on behalf of the Green New Deal, including through regional organizations such as the Bay Area Sunrise Movement. LGBTQ+ stories at the festival encompass a variety of titles, one being Idan Haguel’s Israeli Concerned Citizen (Sun/24), a thought-provoking fiction about a guppie couple whose gentrifying move to a diverse neighborhood on Tel Aviv’s outskirts has unexpected, unpleasant impact on pre-established residents.

Though just a sampling of the overall program, a few features we were able to catch in advance are well worth a visit to the Castro or Albany:

JFF’s opening night selection at the Castro is writer-director Moshe Rosenthal’s accomplished first feature. Meir (Sasson Gabay) and Tova (Rita Shukrun) are a retired couple living in an upscale Tel Aviv apartment complex, their children long vanished into adulthood, the two parents left with each other—which, after 46 years, has gotten old. She’s bored; he’s a grump. Then one day they get swept into the orbit of middle-aged Itzik (Lior Ashkenazi), a gregarious, confident, flashy, effortlessly insinuating bachelor moved into the penthouse upstairs. His influence is invigorating: Almost immediately, the older neighbors find themselves more attentive to their grooming, feeling more adventurous, eager for this neighbor’s flattering attentions. But like wallflowers unexpectedly befriended by the cool kids, they also rapidly become over-dependent on their new pal. Thurs/21, 6:30pm. Castro

Bernstein’s Wall
This year’s Centerpiece Documentary is Douglas Tirola’s biography of the American conductor, composer, educator, and activist, to name just a few of his many hats. While he may be most famed for West Side Story—arguably the greatest musical theater score ever—during his lifetime (1918-1990) Leonard Bernstein wrote other important works in various idioms, was a popularizer of classical music like no American before him, and took up various causes as a high-profile activist and mediator. He was also a bit of a tortured soul, presumably not least as a primarily gay man who seemingly fought that identity most of his life, by means including marriage and children. A frequent, gifted public speaker, his audio recordings basically narrate his own story here, illustrated by copious archival materials. Sat/23, 2:30 pm. Castro.

Farewell, Mr. Haffmann
Nimbly adapted from a prize-winning stage play, Fred Cavaye’s drama stars Daniel Auteuil as a Parisian jeweler who manages to get his family out to safety as the Nazis close in on Jewish citizens. But his own exit gets caught in that tightening noose, forcing him to return to the shop he’s turned over to a newly-hired assistant (Gilles Lellouche) and his wife (Sara Giraudeau). He becomes their reluctant long-term secret “guest,” hidden from prying eyes in the basement, his presence growing increasingly hazardous and complicated. It’s an expertly acted drama with some unexpected twists. Sat/22, 8:30pm. Castro.

My Name is Andrea
Among numerous JFF entries this year with local ties, a highlight is Oakland-based Pratibha Parmar’s documentary about late, controversial author-activist Andrea Dworkin. Fiercely attuned to injustices from an early age, she became a leading theorist and critic of male supremacy, indicting society as a whole for normalizing violence toward and objectification of women. Her condemnation of pornography, however, was too rigid for some sex-positive feminists, and other stances provoked wide-ranging responses on all points on the political scale. Parmar uses the subject’s writings and lectures as well as reenactments and some famous readers (Ashley Judd, Andrea Riseborough, Christine Lahti etc.) to offer an admiring reconsideration of this divisive figure, even if some of Dworkin’s more problematic aspects get left out. Sat/23, 5:25pm. Castro

Haute Couture 
Veteran Gallic star Nathalie Baye and newly emerging one Lyna Khoudri (Gagarine, The French Dispatch) are paired in this familiar but charming Cinderella tale. When the aging-out head of a dressmaking studio at Christian Dior unpleasantly crosses paths with a young “ghetto girl,” their clash of generations and cultures commences a mentorship that just might pass a torch within the most rarefied circles of high fashion. The characters’ credibly thorny relationship dynamic makes writer-director Sylvie Ohayon’s film more than a formulaic seriocomedy, one further enhanced by fascinating glimpses at the behind-scenes minutia of couture creation. Sun/24, 5:50pm. Castro; Tues/26, 8:30pm. Albany

Israel’s own creation story has by now had many decades to harden myth into fact, though even when the events were still fresh, they were being romanticized by the likes of the novel and film Exodus. But what about the Palestinians whose communities were forcibly dissolved to make way for that new state? Their stories, their villages, their very existence has been largely erased. When an Israeli graduate student excavated much of that info for his thesis work in the late 1990s, the blowback was so extreme that his academic career ended before it even started. But as Alon Schwartz’s documentary reveals, the evidence he uncovered remains—including of a full-scale massacre in 1948. Not the least disturbing element here are interviews with elderly, still-kicking founders of a kibbutz on that extinct Arab town’s site. They testify to the fact that history is written by its winners—as well as by their selective amnesia towards its “losers.” Sat/3,0 3:05pm. Albany

Let It Be Morning
On a similar note, albeit taking place about three-quarters of a century later, there’s this latest from Eran Kolirin of The Band’s Visit, JFF’s closing night feature. Like that film, this is a bittersweet fiction about being stranded—one maybe more bitter than sweet this time. Sami (Alex Bakri) has supposedly “made it,” escaping his beleaguered Palestinian village to find a white collar job, a trophy wife, and other accoutrements of success in Jerusalem. But when an Israeli Army roadblock prevents their returning from a family wedding, the cracks in his facade begin to show. This different kind of lockdown reveals not only Sami’s unhappiness, but the whole community’s accumulated dysfunctionality after years and years of existential stress. Like the writer-director’s prior hit, this is an elegantly crafted, low-key, deadpan, melancholy sort of comedy. Though as the characters’ crisis mercilessly drags on, their mood grows ever more sour, and you won’t be laughing much, either. Sun/31, 7:45pm. Albany

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 21-31 at the Castro Theatre (S.F.) and Albany Twin Theater (Albany), with streaming content available August 1-7. For full program, schedule and ticketing info, go to https://jfi.org/sfjff-2022

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