“Life through a Jew(ish) lens” is the slogan of the 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (hereafter “SFJFF”). Over the course of 18 days in venues located from San Francisco to San Rafael, viewers will be taken to such unexpected places as a northern Irish town with the late Amy Winehouse, a summer camp loathed by Rush Limbaugh, and a Polish town with a dark historical secret. While a reader is unlikely to see all of SFJFF’s 74 films from 17 countries, this preview may provide pointers to some of the festival’s more intriguing offerings.
Opening Night Film “The Zigzag Kid” concerns a police inspector’s mischief-prone son, whose secret mission for his father eventually becomes a search for famed chanteuse Lola Ciperola (Isabella Rossellini). Pair this mashup of detective tale and coming-of-age story with a great 1960s soundtrack plus quite a few chases, and it all spells entertainment.
There’s nothing sexually suggestive in the documentary title “Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came To Dingle.” Dingle happens to be a Northern Ireland town where the singer performed an intimate concert in her pre-superstar days. Winehouse’s animated discussions of such musical influences as Thelonious Monk and the Shangri-Las will make viewers mourn her passing all the more.
Another loss is the subject of Closing Night Film “Rue Mandar.” This bittersweet ensemble comedy concerns a recently deceased matriarch’s squabbling children, who have to deal with their grief, honoring religious tradition, and how to dispose of their late mother’s apartment.
More bitter remembrances can be found in two films concerning the Second World War. Contemporary controversial Polish thriller “Aftermath” is based on the still taboo subject of Polish indifference to and/or complicity in Nazi persecution of Jews. The hero of Jan Troell’s drama “The Last Sentence” is a crusading anti-Nazi Swedish journalist whose refusal to overlook Nazi atrocities earns his countrymen’s enmity.
Objects of present-day enmity are the subjects of a couple of documentaries. Sundance hit “After Tiller” is a life-affirming portrait of the four doctors who still perform late-trimester abortions. The titular “Commie Camp” is Camp Kinderland, a summer camp founded by Yiddish-speaking socialists. Right-wing demagogue Rush Limbaugh recently denounced the camp as a left-wing institution with Communist roots…which would count as a badge of honor in some circles.
Hilariously offensive comedy done right can be found in SFJFF’s screening of the hot Canadian comedy series “Kenny Hotz’ Triumph of the Will.” This former “South Park” writer’s determination to make the world a better place is less noble endeavor and more a mix of reality series and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” cringing.
A more absurd take on sometimes depressing realities can be found in the SFJFF screening of unaired episodes of festival favorite "Arab Labor.” Enlightened Arab Amjad Alian deals with the Jewish/Arab racial demographic “problem” and unintentionally finds himself being an agent of internal political change…if he can figure out what he’s trying to change.
SFJFF viewers will be surprised to learn how a Mexican telenovela director and an illiterate Jordanian grandmother become unlikely agents of social change. Peter Friedman’s “Poor Consuelo Conquers The World” shows how Miguel Sabado used the Mexican television soap opera format (“telenovelas”) to create popular shows that both entertained and educated the public about various social issues. “Rafea Solar Mama,” which comes from documentarians Jehane Noujaim (“Control Room”) and Mona Eldaief, depicts an illiterate Bedouin grandmother’s struggles to bring solar technology to her traditionalist village located near the Jordan-Iraq border.
Returning to America, one finds a huge sidebar in the SFJFF devoted to films by and about New York City and its inhabitants. One of the more interesting looks at the Big Apple’s past is offered by the documentary “Joe Papp In Five Acts.” It’s a portrait of the man who created nonprofit American theater and who also became the most powerful producer on Broadway. “The Art of Spiegelman” introduces viewers to the internationally famous creator of seminal graphic novel “Maus” and his current work as a New Yorker cover artist. Finally, Alex Karpovsky’s “Red Flag” captures a satirical tale of an indie filmmaker’s disastrous road trip in the South. Karpovsky will be familiar to American audiences in his role as Ray the barista on “Girls.”
Speaking of popular television, readers may have heard of the award-winning show “Homeland.” But how many of these same readers know that series is an American adaptation of the critically acclaimed Israeli series “Prisoners Of War?” Gideon Raff, creator of the Israeli series, will screen “Prisoners Of War”’s pilot.
Another perspective on Middle Eastern conflicts comes from the investigative documentary “The Lab.” It shows how the never-ending fighting in the Gaza Strip helps develop Israel’s munitions industry.
Non-military but equally deadly conflicts provide the springboard for two acclaimed films which have been shown in earlier Bay Area film festivals. Frameline 37 LGBT Film Festival award-winner “Out In The Dark” concerns the efforts of a Jewish lawyer and a Palestinian graduate student to stay together in spite of ongoing Arab-Jewish hostilities. Cinequest-screened “In The Shadow” pits a police detective in post-World War Ii Czechoslovakia against a Soviet-influenced security network determined to publicly justify jailing the members of a local Jewish community center.
Two other SFJFF selections come with plenty of pre-festival buzz. Centerpiece film “The Attack” concerns an assimilated Palestinian Israeli doctor who tries to learn why his supposedly assimilated wife became a suicide bomber. The Berkeley Big Night film is the Sundance Film Festival award-winning comedy “Afternoon Delight.” Jill Soloway tells the story of a bored bohemian wife who shakes up her supposedly happy life by hiring a stripper as her live-in nanny.
Whether the reader wants to see “My Awkward Sexual Adventure” or learn about “The Real Inglorious Bastards,” SFJFF promises something for everyone.
(The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs from July 25, 2013 through August 12, 2013. Further information about the festival’s films, venues and locations, screening times, ticket prices, and advance ticket availability can be found by going to www.sfjff.org