The many sides of the Jewish experience

Publication Date: Friday Jul 24, 1998

The many sides of the Jewish experience

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival returns to Palo Alto. Here's a preview of some of the best films being shown.

by Susan Tavernetti

Star-crossed lovers. Travelers in search of Tibet's Dalai Lama. A group of World War II heroes. What sounds like mainstream multiplex fare actually describes the 18th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which stretches its Peninsula leg from July 26-30 at the Park Theatre in Menlo Park. Presenting Bay Area audiences with 17 independent films and videos crafted by Jewish filmmakers from around the world, the festival showcases an amazingly diverse range of subjects and styles. Unlike the dominant media, these efforts explore issues of identity, family, and community within the context of Jewish religious and cultural traditions. At the same time, many of the films resonate with powerful universal themes.

The strong programming offers narrative, documentary, and experimental works that inform and entertain, as well as encourage debate, amusement, inspiration and reflection. No wonder some movie-goers claim this festival is their "favorite Jewish holiday."

Here are some of the highlights:

"Best Man: 'Best Boy' and All of Us Twenty Years Later" (Ira Wohl, United States, 1997) What ever happened to Philly? So many people asked director Ira Wohl this question about his mentally retarded cousin that he decided to make a follow-up to his 1978 Oscar-winning documentary "Best Boy." Now 70 years old, Phillip Wohl still has a big appetite for cake and coffee--and an even bigger appetite for life. This heartwarming film reintroduces us to Philly through "Best Boy" footage taken two decades ago, reminding us that he had lived at home with loving parents for the first 50 years of his life. His initial step toward independence included starting school two years later. This sequel chronicles Philly's growth into a much loved "Best Man" with a moving bar mitzvah symbolically marking his rite of passage. Don't miss this joyous celebration of family, community, and Judaism. Ira Wohl feels lucky to have his life enriched by his cousin's unique spirit. And after watching this first-person documentary, so will you. (Shows at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, July 26. In English. 16mm, 90 minutes)

"The Dybbuk of the Holy Apple Field" (Yossi Somer, Israel, 1997) Representing a new generation of Jewish filmmakers, Israeli director Yossi Somer reworks the Yiddish folk tale into an absorbing movie of star-crossed lovers, broken promises, and Jewish mysticism. The forbidden love between a poor secular Jew (Yehezkel Lazarov) and a young woman (Ayelet Z'urer) whose father has arranged for her to marry into a wealthy Orthodox family becomes a metaphor for the unresolved tensions in Jerusalem today. Boasting topnotch production values and a hard rock soundtrack, this film was the festival's opening night choice. (Shows at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 26. In Hebrew with English subtitles, 35mm, 94 minutes)

"In Our Own Hands" (Chuck Olin, United States, 1996) Interviews, rare archival footage and private photo collections tell the compelling story of ordinary men doing extraordinary things during World War II. A group of volunteers from Palestine formed the only all-Jewish fighting force in the war. As one of the Jewish Brigade veterans emphasized, "We proved to the world that Jews can fight and they can win." And that was just for starters. These same men offered hope to Holocaust survivors, spiriting many of them away to southern Italy where they boarded ships to Palestine. Using logistics learned in the British army, they changed the course of Jewish history by later helping to create the state of Israel. (Shows at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 28. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles, 16mm, 84 minutes)

"The Jew in the Lotus" (Laurel Chiten, United States, 1998) In 1990 writer Rodger Kamenetz tagged along to Dharamsala, India, with a group of Jewish delegates who planned to share their "secret of spiritual survival in exile" with the Dalai Lama of Tibet. This imaginative documentary tracks Kamenetz's transformation from a dispirited man who claimed "nervous is my religion" to one who rediscovers the beauty of his own Jewish tradition. His best-selling book about the Jewish-Buddhist exchange became the inspiration for this fine film. (Shows at 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 27. In English. 16mm, 60 minutes)

"Out For Love . . . Be Back Shortly" (Dan Katzir, Israel, 1997) When a nonfiction filmmaker puts himself in the center of his work--wearing his subjectivity and heart on his sleeve--he may end up making nothing more than a self-absorbed home movie. Dan Katzir's personal memoir escapes this fate for two reasons. As a young Israeli "convinced this peace is killing us," the fledging film student wonders how to find love in the midst of so much hate. Scarred from living in a battle zone, his search for a meaningful relationship and his attempt to express emotion assume a special poignancy. Furthermore, Katzir bears witness to such historic events as the tearful tribute Noa Ben Artzi delivered to her assassinated grandfather, Prime Minister Rabin. The pain is palpable as one person after another files blood-stained memories in their family albums. (Shows at 6 p.m. Sunday, July 26. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Video, 55 minutes)

"Rothchild's Violin" (Edgardo Cozarinski, France, 1997) Director Edgardo Cozarinski thumbs his nose at Soviet socialist realism by celebrating two artists who dared to defy Stalin's agenda of forcing the arts to serve the political aims of the state. Branded as "rootless cosmopolitanism"--a reference to composer Benjamin Fleischmann's Jewishness--the one-act opera based on Chekhov's short story gives the drama its title and serves as its centerpiece (the esteemed Sergei Leiferkus sings the lead role). The opera plays in the imagination of Dmitri Shostakovich (played by Sergei Makovetsky), Fleischmann's mentor, who completes its orchestration upon hearing of his student's death in the 1941 German siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich challenges Stalin's official anti-Semitism through his efforts to honor Fleischmann's memory and have the opera performed. With this sometimes obscure film, Cozarinski himself takes aim at Stalin's attempt to make all the arts more accessible and relevant to the masses. Under Communist Party policy, anything personal or formally experimental was explicitly forbidden. Cozarinski's drama, which sometimes cloaks messages in symbolism, would have been banned. (Shows at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 26. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm, 101 minutes)

"Soleil" (Roger Hanin, France, 1997) Sophia Loren brings quiet dignity and strength to her role as a loving mother who ensures her family's survival despite the discriminatory laws imposed against North African Jews when France's pro-Nazi Vichy regime gains control of Algeria. Loren's performance is the best thing about Roger Hanin's languid semi-autobiographical story. (Shows at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 30. In French and Arabic with English subtitles. 35mm, 111 minutes)

"Treyf" (Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky, United States, 1998, with shorts "1919" and "Tiny Bubbles") Treyf is Yiddish for "not kosher," a term that extends to unorthodox political and social views. Filmmakers Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky fall within this category: they're lesbians who fell in love at a Passover Seder. With refreshing honesty, the two women reveal their feelings as outsiders trying to express their Jewish American identities in their own way. They roll their eyes and voice strong opinions about everything from the divisive agendas within the Jewish lesbian community to Zionism. (Shows at 8:30 p.m. Monday, July 27. In English. 16mm, 54 minutes)

Call the Park Theatre at 32-MOVIE or 326-6843 for daily program and ticket information. Information is also available on the Web at http://www.sfjff.org. 

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