Reviews From San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 38

by Peter Wong on July 17, 2018

Gilda Radner, the subject of Lisa D’Apolito’s sometimes heartbreaking festival opener “Love, Gilda,” had a talent for making the truth funny through naivete.  Such characters as Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseanndanna helped meteorically propel Radner to fame on “Saturday Night Live.” D’Apolito’s touching biography balances the joys of Radner’s comic gift with her struggles with such life setbacks as an eating disorder and ovarian cancer.  Fortunately, Radner would find a way through laughter to re-embracing life.

***

Blue Note Records is to jazz records what the Criterion Collection is to commercial home video.  The label earned its reputation as the Cadillac of jazz by offering some of the most significant and enduring works in the genre.  The musicians who graced the Blue Note label over the years have included John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk (before the masses appreciated his music), and Norah Jones.

Sophie Huber’s delightful documentary “Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes” is a love letter to both the men who founded the famed record label and the artists who recorded there.  The latter were lucky enough to use the opportunity given by the label’s founders to take as big a step as possible out of the commercial music industry comfort zone. Not only is the film filled with glorious samples of incredible jazz music but it captures the titular label’s essential spirit.

Viewers who come to Huber’s film seeking to understand Blue Note Records through the travails of its founders or a jukebox approach will need to find another film.  Label founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff weren’t interested in accumulating musical hits as if they were sonic scalps. Nor would just listening to excerpts from famous tunes recorded on Blue Note tell the viewer anything about the feelings or influences behind the music.

Instead, Huber’s film captures the label’s enduring significance by recounting the motivations of the people who fell into its orbit.  Former German Jews Lion and Wolff were willing to trust the artists to create the jazz the founders personally wanted to hear.

However, that trust wasn’t given blindly.  Tenor saxman Ike Quebec served as Blue Note’s A&R man, someone who knew the difference between musicians with real talent and fakes.  Lion worked directly with the artists on planning the sidemen for their projects. He felt that only by understanding the artists Blue Note signed could they be encouraged to give their best performances.

Such trust and understanding was refreshing to musicians more used to the cheapness of record companies.  At Blue Note, artists weren’t pressured to record for commercial purposes the umpteenth version of a basic jazz standard.  These musicians repaid Lion’s trust by producing such works as Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” and Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco.”

Blue Note did admittedly drop Thelonious Monk for lack of sales.  But that decision came after Monk spent five years at the label, a far longer time than more commercially minded record companies would have given him.

Reid Miles’ album cover designs helped bring a sense of unity to the label’s eclectic offerings.  Using unusual lettering styles and one of Wolff’s many skillfully shot pictures of Blue Note musicians performing, Blue Note’s album covers wound up being visually distinct from anything else on the market.  Wolff could have done without Miles’ constant cropping of his pictures, though.

Huber’s film makes even behind-the-scenes information about recording location endearing.  Sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder must have had incredibly understanding parents given that the living room of their home doubled as a studio for Blue Note records made from 1953 to 1959.  The Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio that Blue Note moved into will tempt long-time San Francisco residents to make Church of Saint John Coltrane jokes. That’s because the facility designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright student had a 3-story high ceiling in the studio area.  The high studio ceiling frequently led the unwary to mistake the Blue Note building for a church.

Some Blue Note artists lived by the semi-religious credo that jazz was the musical voice of their fight for survival.  As Shorter and Herbie Hancock explain, the fight could be an internal struggle for personal dignity or an external fight to obtain basic civil rights.  But whatever the nature of that struggle, it needed to be musically expressed in their own personal terms.

It’s ironic that musical hits resulted in this custom label’s commercial fall.  Two unexpectedly successful Blue Note recordings led greedy record distributors to pressure Lion and Wolff to crank out more jazz hits.  Lion and Wolff’s refusal to compromise the label’s unique character resulted in damaging economic retaliation. In the end, Blue Note was sold to a small record label before eventually stopping issuing new recordings.

Fortunately, thanks to the eventual intervention of EMI/Capitol Records and veteran rock producer Don Was, the Blue Note story continues.  What will truly excite viewers is seeing how the popularity of hip hop leads to both a revived interest in the jazz music released by Blue Note and a creative infusion to the jazz genre.  Sharp-eared listeners familiar with either Lee Morgan’s bassline or Lou Donaldson’s “Ode To Billie Joe” will hear their unexpected appearances in quite a few hip-hop songs. Meanwhile, newer jazz artists such as Robert Glasper have melded hip hop beats into jazz.   The intersection of hip hop and jazz shouldn’t be too surprising. An interviewee sagely notes that Monk really was the first hip-hop pianist.

Huber’s film ultimately delivers an entertaining look at Blue Note Records’ legacy.  If the film also helps viewers expand their jazz horizons beyond Davis and Coltrane, it’s likely the shades of Lion and Wolff would dance along to that development.

***

The only dancing performed in Ruth Beckermann’s Centerpiece Documentary “The Waldheim Waltz” is around the truth of central subject Kurt Waldheim’s World War II military service.  Utilizing shelved three-decades-old footage, Beckermann’s film chronicles the clash between accountability for a nation’s guilt and nationalist avoidance of uncomfortable historical truths.  The outcome of Waldheim’s election is never in doubt. But Waldheim supporters’ increased willingness to overlook inconvenient facts or embrace anti-Semitism foreshadows the rise of such right-wing nationalists as Donald Trump.

***

David Freid’s intriguing short “Nazi VR” blends history and applied science.  It shows how VR technology aided the prosecution of former SS guard Reinhold Hanning.  The defendant claimed he didn’t take part in the Nazi extermination of Jews that took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In earlier trials of former Nazis, this claim would suffice to stymie the prosecution with a “he said, she said” situation.   But this time, the Public Prosecution Office approached the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation to reconstruct Auschwitz-Birkenau in VR.  Forensic VR engineer Ralf Breker fascinatingly shows how technology used to reconstruct crime scenes from computer algorithms is applied to recreate the death camp from its present day remains.  The resulting simulation steps around the problem of lacking evidence to hold Hanning personally responsible for exterminating Jews. Merely performing his duty as a death camp guard means Hanning can’t claim ignorance of the mass killings happening at Auschwitz-Birkenau..

Yet rather than a triumph of justice, Freid’s film ultimately leaves a bittersweet taste.  Hanning may have been convicted, but prosecutions of surviving fellow Nazis who’ve escaped justice would be difficult.  Such fugitives would be at least in their 90s by now. Even the conviction of Hanning turns out to be a short-lived victory   It’s small comfort that VR is effective in prosecuting former Nazis when future opportunities for using this tool might be drying up.

***

“Naila and The Uprising,” the new Julia Bacha documentary, uses a hitherto little heard perspective to recount the rousing story of a dedicated activist for Palestinian liberation and the world-shaking event she was a part of.

Seeing father Ibrahim Ayesh reduced to tears planted in young Naila Ayesh the seed of dedication to ending Israel’s occupation.  Ayesh pere wept because he couldn’t stop the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) blowing up the Ayesh family home..

Naila’s college education in Bulgaria would lead to her meeting and eventually marrying Palestinian liberation activist student Jamal.  They returned to the Occupied Territories to help in the fight to throw off the Israeli yoke.

Bacha’s film will open the eyes of those who think organized Palestinian politics lies with either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority (PA).  Naila’s group, the Democratic Front, encouraged women to participate in the political process. By comparison, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which eventually became the PA, hewed to the traditional ideas that only men mattered as political participants.

The first Intifada happened without Arafat’s political blessing or encouragement.  What sparked the film’s titular uprising was ordinary Palestinians’ mass awareness that after 20 years of occupying Gaza, the IDF showed no signs of leaving.

The unity from the Palestinians’ collective protest of Israeli inertia gets thrillingly captured by Bacha.  Boycotts of Israeli goods had a spectacular economic impact on Israeli businesses. Economic self-sufficiency through cultivating Palestinian farm cooperatives and businesses helped build Palestinian community strength.  Local committees took over providing the government services the Israelis withheld.

Throughout Bacha’s film, animated sequences regularly show faceless people participating in the events described.  These sequences are visual workarounds for depicting events which obviously lack filmed records. But these animated moments also show at their best that the story of the first Intifada doesn’t revolve solely around Naila’s experiences.  Despite Naila’s prominent involvement, the Intifada’s successes depended more on Palestinian unity against Israeli oppression.

The IDF “Iron Fist” operation took various measures to squash Palestinian resistance.  If currfews didn’t work, electrical and phone services were cut off. Decapitation strike deportations targeted teachers and journalists among other potential Palestinian troublemakers.  And if all else failed, there was always the IDF practice of “beat up Palestinians first, rationalize later.”

Naila obviously didn’t escape the IDF’s tender attentions during the first Intifada.  Being repeatedly left out all night in the desert cold during her pregnancy didn’t happen this time.  But Jamal coincidentally got deported four days before son Majd was born. Naila herself was imprisoned in Tilmond Prison without charge shortly after her son’s birth.

Yet despite the military superiority of Israel’s occupation forces, the Israeli government lost the moral argument in the eyes of the world.  The IDF came off as petulantly harassing ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in difficult circumstances. International pressure, particularly from the Israeli sock puppet normally known as the United States government, finally pushed the Israelis to the negotiation table.

Bacha treats the Oslo Accords as a betrayal of the Intifada’s successes.   Arafat comes off as a power-hungry opportunist exerting payback against a people who didn’t seek PLO support.  The reduced or non-existent political roles for women reversed the political gains and empowerment Palestinian women gained over the course of the Intifada.  Finally, what Arafat agreed to at Oslo didn’t even come close to what Intifada representatives wanted from the Israelis at the very public Madrid negotiations.  Was it a coincidence the secret Oslo discussions happened simultaneously with the Madrid talks? Unsurprisingly, history has shown the Oslo Accords’ uselessness in resolving Israeli-Palestinian friction.

The Oslo Accords’ failure does not relegate future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to uselessness.  “Naila And The Uprising” suggests a different negotiating approach is required. Perhaps the PA shouldn’t be the sole Palestinian representative in the future.  Representatives from the Palestinian women’s political party need to be present with shared power to sign off on any future peace agreement. That way, PA political opportunism is checked and women’s interests are represented instead of ignored.  Failing that, maybe someone might have the courage to dedicate money for future settlement building solely to Palestinian housing.

(Opening Night Film “Love Gilda” screens at 6:30 PM on July 19, 2018.  “Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes” screens at 3:35 PM on July 21, 2018  Centerpiece Documentary “The Waldheim Waltz” screens at 6:10 PM on July 24, 2018.  “Nazi VR” screens at 8:55 PM on July 21, 2018 before “Winter Hunt.” “Naila and the Uprising” screens at 5:00 PM on July 29, 2018.  All screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF). For further information about the films, screenings at East Bay venues, and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfjff.org .)

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