The Hebrews of summer
Highlights from the 30th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
by David Lamble
The 30th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival offers a fascinating array of films on Jews and the Holocaust, including the West Coast Premiere of John-Keith Wasson's romantic doc Surviving Hitler: A Love Story; a Jews in Shorts program highlighting Israeli narrative shorts; Nancy K. Fishman's archival series Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film; and a real treat for the athletically minded, Peter Miller's sensationally entertaining doc Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.
The Festival plays at multiple Bay Area venues, from our beloved Castro Theatre (July 24-29) to the Roda Theatre in Berkeley (July 31-Aug. 3), the Cinearts in Palo Alto (July 31-Aug. 3), the San Francisco Jewish Community Center (Aug. 7-8) and Smith Rafael Film Center (Aug. 7-9). Below are some highlights.
Tom In Nimrod Shapira's claustrophobic short, two boys, Tom and Daniel, are flirting and playing games with each other on a weekend in the woods with a female friend. These Israeli hotties enjoy teasing each other nearly to death while still maintaining their hetero credentials with Michal. As with the best narrative shorts, director Shapira cleverly tosses hairpins our way. Daniel admits, "I love you" to Tom before hitting him in the puss. Finally, Daniel somewhat tersely asks the artist-in-making "not to draw me anymore." (Jews in Shorts program; Roda, Aug. 2)
Te Extrano (I Miss You) In this deliciously moody, semi-autobiographical drama, Argentina's mid-70s "Dirty Little War" forces a gangly, red-haired adolescent to put aside childish ways following the politically-inspired disappearance of his beloved older brother. Javier (the subtly emotive Fermin Volcoff) longs to be allowed to play some of the radical political games favored by his athletic bro, Adrian (darkly handsome Martin Slipak). Following a military coup, the Junta dispatches thugs to suppress dissent at the brothers' high school. Adrian, refusing to abandon his friends in the growing underground, disappears one night, and the parents decide to send Javier away to sit out the hostilities with relatives in Mexico. Volcoff is especially strong at portraying an adolescent forced to make impossible choices, and to face the unbearable grief of a grandmother whose mental breakdown causes her to mistake him for the now-dead Adrian. Director Fabian Hoffman (with writer Diana Cardozo) neatly explores the tensions affecting this middle-class Jewish family whose plans for a secure life after leaving Nazi-occupied Poland are rudely upended. Plays with the Mill Valley-based short Escape from Suburbia. (Castro, 7/24; Cinearts, 8/2; Roda, 8/4; Rafael, 8/8)
Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story "I understood what it meant to be a Jew. I understood that people thought you were different. It was an era when there were wooden signs on apartment buildings and homes for rent and stuff: 'No Jews or dogs allowed.'"
Growing up asthmatic and Jewish in a tough section of Miami during the Great Depression, Al Rosen learned how to defend himself (his nose broken innumerable times as an amateur boxer), and how to hit a curveball. Rosen, a slugging third baseman on two Cleveland Indians pennant-winning teams, enjoyed a stellar playing career that was followed by equally impressive stints in the front office. In 1978, he directed George Steinbrenner's Yankees to a World Series trophy, then was the brains behind the SF Giants' appearance in the 1989 earthquake series. Rosen is perhaps most proud of sticking up for a pioneering African American teammate, Larry Doby. "I knocked out a taxi driver because he wouldn't take Larry in the same cab we were going in." Rosen is certain that talented gay players deserve their shot at playing America's great game. "I think it's going to happen, and it should happen. If I were a teamma
Rosen is one of several dynamic Jewish ball-players whose exploits are celebrated in Peter Miller's Jews and Baseball. Featuring a rare interview with Hall of Fame legend Sandy Koufax, Miller's rigorously researched script (narrated by Dustin Hoffman) uncovers many historical gems about the contributions of Jewish players.
The filmmakers trace the first Jewish ballplayer back to the game's emergence in the Civil War era; document the reluctance of many early players to sport obviously Jewish surnames; and show the role of the NY Giants' irascible manager John J. McGraw in recruiting Jewish players to the Polo Grounds to counteract the Yankees giant Babe Ruth. Then there's the inspirational saga of the first great Jewish star, Hank Greenberg, in almost matching the Bambino's home-run record in 1935; the decision of Greenberg and LA Dodger ace Koufax to sit out important games on Yom Kippur; and the continuing cavalcade of successful Jewish players, including the So. Cal.-born Milwaukee Brewers slugging leftfielder Ryan Braun. (Castro, 7/25; Cinearts, 7/31; Roda, 8/1; Rafael, 8/8)
Grace Paley: Collected Stories Fans of this justly celebrated feminist writer will devour this personally crafted memory doc fashioned shortly before her death in 2007. Lilly Rivlin assembles snippets of Paley at several ages explaining how her politics fueled her fiction, how she found happiness in two marriages, and her big moment at a writers conference when she confronted the sexism of "storming" Norman Mailer. (Castro, 7/25; Roda, 8/1)
Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams Beginning with Oz's incisive description of the two-states solution to the Israeli/Palestine conflict as a painful if necessary "amputation," Masha Zur Glozman's nimbly edited doc on the famous Israeli author covers Oz's traditional subjects, from the dire state of contemporary Zionism to the ongoing struggle of European Jews to adapt to a Middle Eastern society after their violent expulsion from Europe. (Roda, 8/3; JCCSF, 8/7)
Stalin Thought of You The saga of Soviet-era political cartoonist Boris Efimov, told while the still-spirited artist was marking his 104th birthday (he died at 108 in 2008) is the Stalin-the-butcher story to end all Stalin-the-butcher stories. As Boris tells it, Uncle Joe was not fond of Russians with their own agendas. The film pivots on his poignant description of how brother Mikhail became a victim of the 1930s purge trials. Boris makes as good a case as anyone can for saving one's skin when confronted by a monstrous evil. Plays with the short Patriot. (Roda, 8/5; JCCSF, 8/7)
Surrogate A damaged man gets help reestablishing emotional ties with his family from a female sex surrogate. This short feature offers partial nudity, beautiful images and a sensitive exploration of issues confronting many war-torn societies; plays with short Guided Tour. (Cinearts, 8/2; JCCSF, 8/8)