Feature story: Cultural conversation

Jewish Film Festival explores family and tradition, estrangement and ambiguity

The universe of Jewish cinema is a universe of memory, evocative of Amsterdam and Jerusalem, 1942 Paris and Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Its stories speak of crisis and faith, of alienation and belonging.

Many of these stories will be told in Palo Alto next month, when the 31st annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival comes to town.

The festival, with screenings in San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Rafael, comprises feature films, shorts, animation and raw, revealing documentaries, brought together in discussion of what it can mean to be Jewish, and what it can mean to create or see a Jewish film. What makes cinema Jewish? What makes cinema cinema?

The films include more traditionally historical offerings along with the stories of today, such as the 2010 drama "Polish Bar."

The time of "Polish Bar" is now, the landscape Chicago and its hustling, brooding underbelly. Reuben (Vincent Piazza) is the child of suburban respectability, a young Jewish DJ chasing his dreams of making it big -- but his tall ambitions and naivete leave him dealing cocaine out of the questionable strip club in the Polish Village neighborhood where he spins his beats.

Mired in theft and sleaze-laden nights that estrange him from his family, Reuben begins to lose control of the worlds that define his life, among them his relationship with his mother and stepfather, his uncle (Judd Hirsch), his dying grandfather and his Hasidic cousin Moises, who invites him to pray.

"I don't rocks the Orthodox," Reuben quips by way of refusal. Later he admits, "I just don't need all this pressure to be Jewish all the time," to which Moises replies: "You can't escape. We're everywhere."

The 96-minute film, like its music, is brave-talking and heavy-hitting, buoyed up by a defiant hip-hop energy that gives way seamlessly to otherworldly yet folksy songs sung in Hebrew. Modern, but in a way that remembers. Confident, but with painstaking attention given to each character's self-doubt. There's Tommy, Reuben's troubled and violent friend, and Ebony, a tough but vulnerable pole dancer. They add to a patchwork of stories, not especially Polish and not always intuitively Jewish. But then again, such stories may not have to be.

"Yes, it's possible to make a Jewish film, and yes, 'Polish Bar' is one," said the film's director, Los Angeles-based Ben Berkowitz, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "But films are never really one thing. It was more about making it good, making it honest. I tried very hard not to do a demographic because I'm more interested in the stories. I don't want to just see the happy parts. I want to see the conflicts, the struggle. And I'd hope that someone who is not Jewish would be able to watch and relate."

What is true of its sister films is undoubtedly true of "Polish Bar" itself: All is not necessarily as it seems. It's not a parable of childhood, but it is about growing up and coming to terms.

"There is no bar that's exactly like the Polish bar, but it's real," Berkowitz said. "People in 'Polish Bar' are all trying to be good, but the film is not an easy film. It's not a feel-good film. It's tough. It can be really heartbreaking."

Heartbreaking, yes. But what is most heartbreaking is also most reassuring, in particular at moments of a mother's insurmountable love, a stepfather's words of wisdom or an Orthodox cousin's honesty about family and faith. Ends are left untied, questions left unanswered.

And somehow, that's all right, with this film and others in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Maybe nobody knows what will become of the Jewish girl who has lost her mother and is taken in by a Gentile woman, the titular character of the wintry Polish drama "Joanna," at great danger to both woman and child in German-occupied Warsaw.

It also might be tricky to explain why political complicity, as detailed in the French World War II film "The Roundup," is so painful to talk about. And no one can say for sure if Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel -- Catholic priest, Jew and the subject of "Torn," an Israeli documentary -- will find true reconciliation between the seemingly antithetical halves of his religious identity.

"I had struggled all my life with what it meant to be a Jew if I didn't pray weekly, much less daily -- if I sometimes believed in God and sometimes didn't," Joseph Dorman, director of the American biographical documentary "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," said in a director's statement. "The important thing, in the end, is to wrestle with the ambivalences of identity. Only by doing so can we hope to hold on to our ever-shifting identities in any meaningful way."

The 29 films to be shown Aug. 1 to 7 at Palo Alto's Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, and the 58 festival films in total, seem not to be there to resolve uncertainties. Far from it. Collectively, they appear to make a case that uncertainties can be desirable, even crucial, as unknowability turns into possibility and possibility turns into inclusiveness.

The people inside the art are lovable clowns, traumatized youths, grandparents, matchmakers, seductresses and singers, and their stories are as tender as they are harrowing, as sweet as they are difficult. In some way or another, many of these stories have already been told. But perhaps they persist because they're worth telling again.

What: The 31st annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, with some screenings in Palo Alto

Where: Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto.

When: Local screenings are afternoons and evenings, Aug. 1 through Aug. 7. "Polish Bar" shows at 8:45 p.m. on Aug. 2.

Cost: Tickets are $12 general admission and $11 for matinees (4 p.m. and earlier on Monday through Thursday). Student and senior tickets are $10.50. A free Palo Alto screening of "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" is at 4 p.m. on Aug. 3.

Info: For more information, go to or call 415-621-0523 weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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