Film on Activist Heather Booth Among Highlights of 37th SF Jewish Film Festival

by on July 20, 2017

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has a lot of great films this year. The  subject of Lilly Rivlin’s rousing documentary “Heather Booth: Changing The World” is a real-life hero.  It’s no exaggeration to call Heather Booth progressive politics’ patron saint.  Yet despite the impact of her work, this veteran political organizer remains relatively unknown to the general public.  Rivlin’s film entertainingly introduces viewers to this remarkable woman.

For several decades, Booth has worked as a political organizer on major American social justice issues.  Her resume of accomplishments include being a Freedom Summer volunteer, helping set up the covert abortion network Jane Underground, getting Harold Washington elected Mayor of Chicago, and aiding Senator Elizabeth Warren in building public pressure to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  These political accomplishments are not that surprising when the viewer hears about an incident from Booth’s days on an Israeli kibbutz.  The time difference between Washington, D.C. and Israel didn’t daunt Booth from being up in the middle of the night to hear live radio coverage of the 1963 March On Washington.

That 1963 tale from Booth’s youth is just one moment in a life shaped by a desire to leave the world a better place.  Rivlin resists the temptation to turn her cinematic portrait into hagiography.  Instead, the film uses Booth’s colorful anecdotes to show that accomplishing what she’s done simply requires caring enough to constantly push for change.

Regularly showing up for the right progressive causes would have been enough to earn Booth progressive political karma points.  But she went above and beyond that by introducing innovations still used today in political organizing work.  People-powered campaigns can thank Booth for introducing door-to-door canvassing and developing an organizational chart to plan campaign strategies.

Rivlin suggests Booth’s final organizing asset is her generosity of heart and commitment.  Various interviewees see Booth’s incredible problem solving skills as valuable gifts which help their cause move forward.  Booth’s Midwest Academy teaches organizing not as a secret for the select few but as a tool for the many.

In short, Booth is very much a real deal fighter for social justice. Viewers will leave the film even more inspired to work for change.

The quietly wrenching Centerpiece Narrative “1945” brings a small Hungarian village’s anti-Semitism to a slow boil.  Ferenc Torok’s drama follows the villagers’ varied reactions to the arrival of two Orthodox Jews for some unstated purpose.   The two Jews’ methodical walk through the village stokes the gentiles’ fears of being held accountable for stealing the homes and businesses of the Pollaks and other former Jewish residents.  Despite its revenge drama elements, “1945”’s resolution skips personal score-settling to favor landing in a cosmic scale’s balancing pan.

Does playing the Prince song “Sexy Motherf****r” in a documentary on Sigmund Freud make the resulting film vacuous fluff?  No.  Director Tzachi Schiff’s use of Prince and other pop culture ephemera in the documentary “More Alive Than Dead” support the film’s central theme. That theme is given the many ways in which Freud’s theories have been challenged over the years, the father of psychotherapy still exerted an enormous influence over the shape of 20th and 21st century culture.

Freud’s theories shaped or inspired such 20th century developments as the sexual revolution, Surrealism, and the public relations industry.  Both the sexual revolution and the public relations field grew out of Freud’s insights into human desire and repression.  However, the Surrealists’ emphasis on drawing artistic inspiration from the human unconscious would have caused the man who coined that idea to have an intellectual cow over being misinterpreted.

The wonder of Schiff’s film is its deft balance between serious snippets on Freud’s theories and frequently irreverent interpretations of those ideas.   A particularly entertaining sight is the explicit animated sequences, whose influences seem to include “Monty Python”-era Terry Gilliam and the drawings of Ralph Steadman.  Rather than taking a po-faced tone for the film, Schiff prefers to deliver cinematic pies in the face.

In discussing such Freudian ideas as not treating human desire as something to be feared, the viewer sees how the intellectual groundwork was laid for such recent developments as social acceptance of gays and lesbians.  But Schiff keeps the film from being total cheerleading for Freud by including criticism from Argentine artist Horacio Cardo and French intellectual debunker Michael Onfray.  When the viewer hears Onfray describe the process by which Freud arrived at his insights into human psychology, it’s obvious replicable results played no part in the father of psychotherapy’s thought processes.

And yet, as Schiff shows, Freud’s work still had an impact on civilization.  The legendary psychoanalyst’s theoretical insights displayed the type of emotional truth found in particularly insightful novels.  His thinking provided a way to normalize the occurrence of dreams or the stirrings of desire.  Artists from fashion designers to the creator of “The Sopranos” found inspiration in Freud’s ideas.

Psychology may have grown and diversified in the days since the field’s intellectual father first propounded his ideas.  But without the lexicon and ideas popularized by Freud, laypeople wouldn’t have even a baseline for discussing human behavior.

***

Guido Hendrikx’s documentary/fiction hybrid “Stranger In Paradise” manages the difficult task of being both timely and emotionally honest.  This must-see S.F. Jewish Film Festival entry balances hard truths about handling Europe’s refugee crisis and the emotional costs of the currently fashionable approaches.

Each of the film’s three acts shows one of these approaches in action under innocuous titles such as “In Which I Tell It Like It Is.”  The first act uses economics and blunt prejudice to tell its refugee audience that their hopes for a better life in Europe are simply out of their reach.  The second act greatly empathizes with the refugees’ long-shot effort to make their dreams come true.  The third act shows how a methodically neutral application of Netherlands immigration law winds up screening out all but a small fraction of the refugee hopefuls.

Left unstated by the film are the major flaws of the various approaches.  The ultra-pragmatic approach turns sensible metrics such as cost of migrant care into refugee disincentives to seeking state aid or even leaving their former countries.  The empathetic approach creates false hopes that every refugee will have their wish for sanctuary granted.  The legal procedure is glorified culling whose bland neutrality hides its ruthlessness.

What makes Hendrikx’s film memorable rather than an academic exercise is a simple device.  Refugee audiences are directly exposed to each approach in full.  Can a viewpoint be called reasonable when it ruthlessly snuffs out hope from a refugee’s eyes?  Can making it through the immigration process be considered a triumph when there lingers in the air the unspoken fear of another legal barrier arising to remove the former refugee from the country?

It’s cold comfort that prior generations weren’t any wiser in dealing with refugee or immigration issues.  Yet it speaks volumes about the present day’s lack of wisdom that quite a few European countries seem happy to repeat the exclusionary tactics and politics of the past instead of looking for new answers that everyone can live with.  Future impending challenges such as the climate refugee problem makes the “why don’t you stay in your country and make it better” argument sound doubly hollow.

Having a more compassionate attitude towards refugees may not solve their day-to-day problems.  But it might humanely shape whatever new policies that do get devised through empathetic realization that “there but for the grace of God, I might be a refugee.”

***

Lola Doillon’s gripping World War II drama “Fanny’s Journey” sets its titular 13-year-old heroine a daunting task.   Fanny (Leonie Souchaud) is forced to shepherd a group of Jewish children across Vichy France to reach the safety of Switzerland.  But lacking resources and relying on luck means Fanny must draw on her personal strengths for the sake of herself and her charges.  Souchaud’s performance captures this real-life heroine’s emotional growth and remarkable courage.  Equally inspiring are scenes showing that deliberate police starvation and betrayal haven’t destroyed the young fugitives’ ability to enjoy the pleasures of a playful chase or imaginary play.

***

(“1945” screens at 6:20 PM on July 26, 2017.  “More Alive Than Dead” screens at 12:40 PM on July 21, 2017.  “Stranger In Paradise” screens at 12:00 PM on July 22, 2017.  “Fanny’s Journey” screens at 8:55 PM on July 25, 2017.  “Heather Booth: Changing The World” screens at 12:15 PM on July 24, 2017.  All screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (474 Castro, SF).  For further information about the films, screenings at other venues, and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfjff.org )

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