Cinematic chutzpah: SF Jewish Film Festival's LGBTQ faves

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday July 18, 2023
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'Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy'
'Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy'

"This year's Festival lineup is once again eclectic, daring, and ripe for discovery and explora- tion," said Jay Rosenblatt, Program Director of the Jewish Film Institute, which produces the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. "The program offers a mixture of emerging and established filmmaking voices that push the limits of how we think about Jewish belonging and identity today."

The 43rd SF Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) will run July 20-August 6 at the Castro Theatre, Vogue Theatre, and the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland. This year's festival is in-person screening with no virtual screening component.

"Each year, SFJFF brings film-makers together with their audiences for transcendent experiences that deepen our understanding of the new horizons of Jewish storytelling," noted Lexi Leban, Executive Director of the Jewish Film Institute.

Midnight rider
There are a few LGBTQ-related films. The chief entry is the semi-disappointing documentary, "Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy," about the now-landmark 1969 film, the only X-rated Best Picture Oscar winner. It's based on the 2021 Glenn Frankel book, "Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic (highly recommended)."

The doc winds up being more of a sociological analysis of how the cultural upheaval (civil rights, Vietnam) of the late 1960s made the film possible, as well as upending the Hollywood cowboy archetype by focusing on Joe Buck (Jon Voight) who moves to New York City from a small town in Texas and ends up becoming a sex worker for men and women. But he also develops a tender friendship with Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) an ill, petty crook/ersatz pimp.

Director John Schlesinger was a closeted homosexual, and scenes in the movie concerning gay life were revolutionary, but so is the undeniable homoerotic vibe to the Buck/Ratso relationship. There are interviews with the surviving actors: Voight (acknowledging it was the best role/movie of his career), gay actor Bob Balaban, Brenda Vaccaro, but noticeably missing is Dustin Hoffman.

Director Nancy Buirski used an audio interview with Schlesinger, who died in 2003. Much is made about portraying New York City in its gritty, grimy reality. However, there's little on the making of the film itself, behind-the-scenes material, its origins in the James Leo Herlihy novel, or the personal stories of the cast and crew.

What it does well is show primarily via Charles Kaiser (author of the highly recommended "The Gay Metropolis") with gay historical context, on the cusp before Stonewall, that made the movie's acceptance of homosexuality a landmark achievement.

Queen of Chutzpah
"Queen of the Deuce" could also be called Queen of Chutzpah as it details the eccentric, one-of-a-kind life story of Chelly Wilson. Her grandson David captures the film's tone when he says, "She was Jewish and celebrated Christmas in a gay porn theatre (Eros). It doesn't get any weirder than that."

Born in Greece, forced by her father to marry, she got the last boat to America before the Holocaust, arriving with five dollars in her pocket. But with her vast entrepreneurial skills, proudly bought straight and gay porn theaters in the 1970s in the area of 42nd Street called The Deuce. She later produced and distributed porn films, all of which made her rich.

A taboo-breaking big-hearted, family-oriented woman, she lived with her husband and kids, alongside her women lovers. Although she died in 1994, through still photos, New York City archival footage, audiotapes made before her death by her son-in-law, and animated sequences in a comic book style highlighting key moments of her life, she's resurrected as the Jewish lesbian Auntie Mame character she became, celebrated and mythologized by her family. It's a captivating off-beat take on the immigrant experience that must be seen to be believed. It's a total gem not to be overlooked.

'I Missed You at Synagogue'  

Other shorts and docs of note
Among the shorts, the best is a small jewel called "I Missed You at Synagogue" about a religious boy named Carmel who, after services, meets a girl who just broke up with his best friend Ido. She regrets rejecting him and asks Carmel to tell Ido to call her. Carmel goes home to find Ido there, waiting to tell him about the end of his relationship.

Carmel slowly realizes he has deeper feelings for Ido. Will he relay his ex-girlfriend's message to Ido? What's so lovely about this piece is the subtlety because the audience is finding out the same time as Carmel where his erotic direction lies. The interplay between religion and desire is positively conveyed also in its delicacy; charming but incisive.

'Diving In'  

"Diving In" chronicles Rachel and Yael on their first night of intimacy, highlighting the perils of cunnilingus when Yael discovers a holocaust museum inside Rachel's vagina, which among other things means being careful of any sharp edges. Yael advises therapy for Rachel to help her deal with anxiety about the Holocaust that is interfering with her ability to experience pleasure. Clearly a metaphor, this bizarre short almost defies explanation, but I won't spoil the ending.

The 27-minute "Arava" concerns a teenage girl (Arava, which means willow) who has returned home after spending six months in rehab. She reunites with her troublemaker best friend Tzipi, running away from the law, who convinces her to go on a trip to northern Israel. Both women are isolated from their families.


They hitchhike through the country facing the challenging realities of growing up —which here might mean dealing with bisexual feelings— as they navigate that unpredictable border between friendship and romantic love. They crash one night at the home of a musician who sells pomegranates. Arava is in search of belonging, a spiritual path leading to some kind of healing. As runaways and at-risk youth, both women must create some identity for themselves, as they reject the tenets of their Jewish faith. Unexpectedly moving, you will root for them as they struggle to maneuver a bumpy road to adulthood.

Strong stories
There are two other films worth mentioning. "Nelly & Nadine" I reviewed last year when it played Frameline and made my list of top 15 movies of 2022. Opera singer/spy Nelly and literary/resistance fighter Nadine meet in Ravensbruck concentration camp as political prisoners and fall in love, eventually reunited two years after war's end.

They move to Venezuela, living together as a secret couple. Sylvie, Nelly's granddaughter, pieces together all the clues, left in a box to her, containing photographs, Super8 footage, tapes, and diary. This documentary is heartbreaking and a thrilling Holocaust love story with a deserved happy ending. If you haven't seen it yet, "Nelly & Nadine" is essential viewing.


The other film worth noting is the closing night documentary, "Bella!" Before AOC and Stacey Abrams, there was Bella Abzug, one of the founders of the women's rights movement. She served in Congress from 1971 to 1977, winning with her campaign slogan, "This woman's place is in the house, the House of Representatives."

Known for her abrasiveness and trademark colorful hats, she was the first Congress member to support gay rights, introducing the first federal gay rights bill in 1974. This film was not available to the press, but includes new interviews with Shirley MacLaine, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi among others as it narrates this straight ally's stormy career and astonishing legacy on behalf of women, the working class, POC communities, and queer people.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 20-August 6 at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro St.), Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento St.), and the Piedmont Theatre (4186 Piedmont Ave., Oakland). $15-$75 single films and events; festival pass $395-$425.

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