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Your 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Preview

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The ad campaign for the 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) challenges viewers to think about the things that make a film Jewish.  Does it need to focus on Jewish religious issues? Must it be set in Israel? Does the talent in front of or behind the camera need to be Jewish?  Do you have to be Jewish to attend SFJFF? (The answer to the last question is No.)

For those seeking answers to the other questions, they can find them via the films chosen for this year’s SFJFF.  Viewers can come to San Francisco and catch these films from July 18 – 28, 2019 at the Castro Theatre. Or else, they can catch smaller selections from SFJFF at other venues such as the Albany Twin and Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre up to August 4, 2019.  Whether it’s a documentary about noted/notorious film critic Pauline Kael (What She Said: The Art Of Pauline Kael) or another chance to follow the culture clashes resulting from a Chinese billionaire re-starting a former General Motors plant (American Factory), the best of the SFJFF offerings will provoke thought and entertain in equal measure.

Here are some suggestions for starting points into the 39th : 

Adam–Berkeley-born graphic novelist Ariel Schrag adapts her coming-of-age/first love story with the directorial help of “Transparent” producer Rhys Ernst.  In 2006, 17-year-old straight cisgender Adam has come to Brooklyn for a summer stay with his lesbian activist sister. When a beautiful femme lipstick lesbian mistakes the teen for a transman, he decides to keep up the pretence as he’s fallen for her.  Among “The L Word” watch parties and trans camps on the fringes of women’s music festivals, questions of identity are sweetly satirized.

Advocate–Meet Lea Tsemel, an Israeli attorney who’s made it her decades-long mission to defend Palestinians accused of crimes against Israelis.  Keeping her privilege in check, this attorney fights in Israeli courts for justice and judicial compassion towards the Palestinians under the Israeli government’s Occupying bootheel.  As this documentary follows Tsemel’s work on two shocking cases, one involving a 13-year-old boy accused of attempted murders, it’s clear how much of a daily uphill battle the attorney wages as well as her relish at waging such fights. 

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary–Ready to let the subject of SFJFF’s Centerpiece Documentary screw around with your mind?  Las Vegas magician and stand-up comic John Szeles, aka the Amazing Johnathan, is an elusive and unpredictable performer who specializes in illusion and the art of deception.  The documentary begins by following what seems to be the Amazing Johnathan’s farewell tour thanks to a terminal heart condition. But it soon becomes clear the film’s subject happens to be spectacularly unreliable and has a drug addiction problem to boot.  Is the film a game where the Amazing Johnathan is trying to sabotage his own documentary?

Army Of Lovers In The Holy Land–Meet the Swedish queer pop-disco band Army of Lovers.  For years, frontman Jean-Pierre Barda and his bandmates have rocked Pride celebrations and underground parties with music influenced by ABBA and the B-52s.  Now that Barda’s aged past the big 5-0, he feels it’s time to enter a new phase of life by moving to Israel. But is the Israeli Army ready for a former rock star who used to lounge around in corset, flowered cloak, and thigh-high patent leather boots?  

City Of Joel–Welcome to the upstate New York village known as Kiryas Joel (City Of Joel).  This ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was founded four decades ago by a rabbi who survived the Holocaust.  The place is intended as a living rebuke to everything the Nazis represented. But now KIryas Joel faces growing pains, which its officials plan to solve by doubling the village’s physical size.  This proposal does not sit well with Joel’s secular neighbors in Monroe, who fear harmful environmental consequences from the Jewish village’s expansion. However, Joel residents respond by charging anti-Semitism and utilizing their political power to fight back hard.

Cooked: Survival By Zip Code–The newest documentary from Judith Helfand, this year’s SFJFF Freedom Of Expression Award winner, centers on an unfortunately forgotten public health disaster.  In July 1995, the city of Chicago was struck by a massive heat wave which caused daily temperatures to rise into triple digit territory. That heat wave unfortunately took the lives of over 500 Chicago residents.  Was it a coincidence that the neighborhoods where the most heat-related deaths occurred also happened to be the ones subjected to redlining by banks? Helfand sets out to find answers and discovers that the ability to prepare for disasters nowadays is strongly tied to one’s personal wealth.  

Dolce Fine Giornata–60-ish Polish Jewish expatriate poet Maria Linde lives la dolce vita in a liberal utopia in Italy’s Tuscan countryside.  But her concerns about Matteo Salvini-style xenophobia leads the Nobel Prize-winning poet to make an ill-advised speech that quickly goes viral.  The speech turns Linde into a polarizing figure and leads to her getting a harsh lesson in the Law of Unintended Consequences.   

Fig Tree–16-year-old Mina has a chance to escape the ravages of the ongoing Ethiopian Civil War by emigrating to Israel.  However, to flee the country means leaving boyfriend Eli behind. The young man’s life is already in danger as he’s at an age where he can be forced into the army thanks to conscription kidnappers.  Writer/director Aalam-Warqe Davidian drew from her own memories of emigrating to Israel for this 1989-set tale.

Give Me Liberty–Vic is a 25-year-old medical van driver who works in Milwaukee.  This last point matters because this Wisconsin city happens to be America’s most segregated urban area.  On this particularly frantic day, the driver has his hands full keeping the peace between his passengers.  On one side are a dozen elderly and loudly kvetching Russian Jewish funeral guests (plus accordion player).  On the other side are a bunch of special-needs clients including more than a few from the low-income African-American community.

It Must Schwing!  The Blue Note Story–You can’t say you know anything about the roots of modern jazz without knowing about Blue Note Records.  Founded by jazz-loving German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, this small record label was dedicated to new, not necessarily commercial, jazz music.  To keep their labor of love going, the duo worked day jobs and plowed record sales proceeds into expanding their label. But the key factors in helping Blue Note’s growth were the respect Lion and Wolff earned from professional jazz musicians…and their impeccable taste.  The roster of artists recorded by Blue Note would eventually include Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.  

Seder Masochism–What do you call a re-telling of the Exodus and Passover stories which mixes in dancing Earth Goddess statues, The Pointer Sisters, and feminist criticism?  You call it the newest animated film from director Nina Paley. This entertainingly provocative film sees Paley using those two central events from Judaism to reflect on the continuing struggle against patriarchal domination and the animator’s own tangled feelings about her religion.  Don’t wait for this film to hit home video or streaming as quite a few music copyright holders will be seriously unamused by “Seder Masochism”’s pointed uses of their music.  

The State Against Mandela And The Others–In 1963, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela and nine alleged confederates were tried for conspiring to overthrow the South African state.  What’s little known is that members of South Africa’s Jewish community were involved in both sides of the trial. Several of Mandela’s co-defendants and members of his legal defense team were Jewish.  On the other side, Attorney General Percy Yutar vigorously led the apartheid government’s prosecution of the activists. This documentary uses interviews with surviving trial participants and archival audio, among other sources, to recapture the trial and the political environment in which it took place.   

Tel Aviv On Fire–In this satirical comedy that’s the SFJFF Centerpiece Narrative, young Palestinian Salam gets a big career break when he joins the writing team for the popular historical soap opera “Tel Aviv On Fire.”  However, writer’s block threatens to sink Salam. Getting stopped at an Israeli military checkpoint turns out to be a stroke of luck for the Palestinian writer. It turns out checkpoint commander Assi is 1) an aspiring writer himself and 2) a big fan of “Tel Aviv On Fire.”  The two become collaborators, when they’re not trying to one-up each other. Salam hopes to use his new success to win back Mariam, the woman he jilted years ago. However, as the soap opera nears its conclusion, writing the story’s ending turns into an artistic tug of war among various interests.  

This Is Personal–Award-winning filmmaker Amy Berg’s documentary traces the growth of the Women’s March from a single online post to a national movement reaching beyond feminism to confront resurgent white supremacy and police violence.  Women’s March co-chairs immigration rights advocate Erika Andiola and Black Lives Matter and gun control advocate Tamika Mallory rise to national prominence. But increased national attention means for Mallory dealing with regular death threats and responding to negative reactions regarding her relationship with the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan.

You Only Die Twice–It began for filmmaker Yair Lev’s mother with news of a possible inheritance of a London home.  All she had to do was prove she was the daughter of Ernst Bechinsky, an Austrian Jew who moved to Palestine with his family.  But when a death certificate for a second Ernst Bechinsky pops up, Lev starts digging up information about his grandfather and the man who stole his grandfather’s identity.  This hunt will lead the filmmaker to discover some disturbing information about the identity thief’s in-laws as well as the legacy of the thief’s actions during the Holocaust. 

All info at: jfi.org/sfjff-2019

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.