The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (hereafter “SFJFF”) annually presents a Freedom of Expression Award. This year’s honoree is filmmaker Alan Berliner, whose documentaries about his relatives and him redefines and challenges popular definitions of the personal documentary.

Berliner’s newest film “First Cousin Once Removed” is a portrait of his mother’s first cousin, Edwin Honig. Said cousin happened to be not only a mentor to Berliner but also an accomplished poet, Brown University teacher, famed critic, and a multilingual translator knighted by the king of Spain. Now, Alzheimer’s has robbed Honig of both his literary gifts and even his memories.


The removal referenced in Berliner’s title describes Honig’s mental state. The poet’s accomplishments and life feel disconnected from his current mental condition. Photographs of ex-wives and military service trigger no associations in Honig’s mind. Even Berliner is at times a new acquaintance to the former critic.

Yet despite Honig’s losses, Berliner’s documentary never sentimentalizes his mentor’s fate. Frequently interwoven series of quick shots at different times in the poet’s old age (indicated by his different hairstyles and strength of his voice) make Honig’s Alzheimer’s feel like part of his life’s continuity rather than an aberration. A methodically staccato spelling out of identifying captions for pictures creates the sense of a memory momentarily regained. Shots of a series of words rapidly appearing onscreen visually capture the slippage of language mastery from Honig’s grasp.

“First Cousin Once Removed” ultimately spurs the question of who memory is for and why. Looking at the covers of Honig’s many poetry collections, it could be argued that memory serves as a marker that identifies what distinguishes one’s life from that of another person.
Yet the film displays ambivalence about memory’s virtues. Honig can certainly take pride in doing classical poetry translations skillful enough to earn public recognition from two different rulers. Yet his sons remember a father who regularly made them weep as children. When one life included both these truths, how much fealty should be given to memory?

Could it be a blessing that Alzheimer’s has wiped Honig’s memories? In the footage from Honig’s later years, the emptiness that appears on his face does suggest a soul which has lost the ability to enjoy earthly existence. Yet that emptiness could also be a blissful sign of liberation from the earthly cares that plagued his life. Berliner leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusion.

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Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine’s film “Life According To Sam” introduces viewers to the titular Sam through close-ups of his cracked fingernails and veins protruding from his hands. A bald wrinkled head reinforces the impression of an old man in second childhood. Only when one hears Sam’s young and still strong voice do we realize that he’s not even out of his first childhood. Progeria, a rare age-accelerating disease, accounts for Sam’s appearance.

The boy does not want viewers’ pity, even if the disease gives its sufferers a life expectancy of 13-14 years. He wants viewers to see how he tries to live a mundane middle school existence, given his body’s fragility. The drama of finding a timely treatment for Sam’s progeria falls on his parents Dr. Scott Berns and Dr. Leslie Gordon. The two doctors’ work is complicated by the paucity of research into progeria’s causes, a consequence of the rarity of its occurrence.

By shrewdly having Sam’s face seen onscreen early on, the Fines visually accustom the viewer to look past the boy’s appearance to see someone who dreams of becoming the next Steve Jobs. This tactic personalizes the stakes in the documentary’s chronicling of Sam’s parents’ race against time. Infodumps about progeria and the mechanics of conducting drug testing are painlessly delivered to help the viewer understand the research team’s progress or lack of same.

The Fines’ careful avoidance of overhyped sentiment pays off at the end with a conclusion that will bring a lump to a viewer’s throat.

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For those who prefer their inspiration with a heavy dash of acid, “Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will” mocks inspirational challenges with plenty of twisted laughter. The title also gooses Leni Riefenstahl-loving neo-Nazis.

Hotz’s acclaimed Canadian television comedy series can be described as a reality show crossed with a spectacularly cringeworthy episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Ostensibly, Hotz plays a self-identified egotistical jerk who’s trying to make the world a slightly better place. Yet his altruistic projects get undermined by his desire for personal acknowledgment compounded by his acts of spectacular social tone-deafness. Hotz’s 75-year-old mother’s sexual desirability isn’t exactly reawakened by the comedian’s use of a TV camera to film her in her underwear. Nor can Jewish-Muslim tensions be lessened by Hotz’s asking if the Koran is available in Yiddish.

The series lampoons the popular idea that a person’s concentrated willpower is the key to accomplishing any goal he or she sets their minds to. Hotz’ “triumphs” fall short of his original goals. Mother Tzafi Hotz, for instance, doesn’t exactly end the finding love episode in a relationship with another man. It’s only by regular exposure to mental handwavium that Hotz can tell himself that he accomplished something.

Befitting Hotz’s background as a former writer for “South Park,” many of the series’ best laughs come from yanking viewers’ chains. Hotz praises Hitler as an example of a single man whose actions made the trains run on time…if one overlooks “that other stuff.” Why Tzafi Hotz makes a “gag me” gesture, readers must see for themselves.

(“First Cousin Once Removed” screens on July 29, 2013 at 6:25 PM. “Life According To Sam” screens on July 27, 2013 at 12:00 PM. Both of these screenings take place at the Castro Theater (429 Castro, SF). “Kenny Hotz’s Triumph Of The Will” screens on August 3, 2013 at 8:45 PM at JCCSF (3200 California (at Presidio), SF). For advance tickets and screening information for non-San Francisco venues, go to www.sfjff.org .)