Oral Histories and Pulp Fictions

Excavation, celebration, and provocation at the 18th annual Jewish Film Festival

To a degree far beyond any other festival on the famously crowded local calendar, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has willfully and successfully embraced the role of provocateur extraordinaire. From documentaries touting a two-state solution to oblique experimental features about obscure dead philosophers, the 18-year-old JFF has persistently challenged, poked, and provoked its ardent audience of mainly nonobservant Jews. This year's lineup is the most radical yet, as the worldwide celebrations of Israel's 50th birthday seem to have pushed the fest's disdain for the Jewish establishment to new heights (or rather, depths).

In contrast to the lone movie airbrushing of the legend of European Holocaust survivors founding the Jewish state, the JFF features a dozen new Israeli films from various quadrants of today's multiculti society. From working-class Sephardic Jews to yuppie urban nihilists to courageous gay pioneers, a cacophony of unexpected voices redefines Israel to the outside world. Meanwhile, a slate of seven films explores the gay and lesbian Jewish community in the U.S. and Israel. All in all, the fest's amuse/offend quotient promises to spark even more fireworks than usual. A slew of filmmakers are coming, guaranteeing that another longstanding festival tradition -- (over)heated post-screening Q&As -- will continue. Here's a critical overview.

Al-Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948
Far and away the most controversial film in the entire program, this erratic oral history reviews how Jewish armed forces evicted Palestine's urban Arab population in 1947 and '48. Made by Dutch filmmakers (one's an Israeli expat) with French money, the one-hour video relies on a handful of elderly eyewitnesses and labyrinthine historians to articulate the cruel and bloody events that transpired between the U.N.'s partition of Palestine in '47 through the Arab states' war on Israel in 1948. This one evokes strong mixed feelings: The uprooting of tens of thousands of peaceful, ordinary people -- and the abrupt end of decades of coexistence between Jewish and Arab neighbors in Haifa and elsewhere -- was undeniably a major tragedy. On the other hand, every war ever fought has made casualties and refugees out of innocent people. Festival director Janis Plotkin's riskiest (and gutsiest) programming decision.

Plays Wednesday, July 22, 6 p.m., Castro; Monday, July 27, 6:50 p.m., UC.

Best Man: "Best Boy" and All of Us Twenty Years Later
Ira Wohl's Oscar-winning 1979 documentary about his mentally retarded cousin, Philly, brilliantly humanized and destigmatized developmentally disabled people. Now 69 with his parents long deceased, the gregarious Philly lives in a group residence home in Queens, and has a daily routine that includes a job. Wohl's feel-good sequel lacks the dramatic, narrative, and emotional propulsion that elevated Best Boy; in fact, I'm not even sure there's a movie here. While Philly's needs and fears were palpable in the earlier film, here he's a cipher. Especially at the film's climax -- Philly's bar mitzvah, the ritual acknowledgement of reaching manhood and joining the community -- we get a stronger sense of Wohl's experience than Philly's. By all means, however, check out Best Boy from the library or Le Video.

Plays Thursday, July 23, 8:30 p.m., Castro; Sunday, July 26, 3:30 p.m., Park; Thursday, July 30, 8:30 p.m., UC; Saturday, Aug. 1, 6 p.m., Lark.

The Dybbuk of the Holy
Apple Field
The festival opener is a glossy, benign retelling of S. Ansky's timeless romantic tragedy-cum-ghost story. Two fathers vow that their infant children will marry; one man dies soon thereafter and the other reneges on his promise when the predestined lovers' paths cross again many years later. Israeli director Yossi Somer's adaptation borrows from Romeo and Juliet (the would-be groom is an unworthy secular Jew while his flame and her greedy father are ultra-Orthodox) and Titanic (the gorgeous leads fall in love at first sight). The love-struck young man falls ill and dies, then inhabits his lover's body on her wedding day -- necessitating an exorcism. (You think Jews don't know from pulp fiction?) The Dybbuk of 1937, sans computer-generated magic, evoked the mystical and horrific to greater effect, but moviegoers with a weakness for greeting-card romance will get their hankies' worth.

Plays Thursday, July 16 (Opening Night), 6:30 p.m. reception/8 p.m. screening, Castro; Saturday, July 25, 7:30 p.m., UC; Sunday, July 26, 8 p.m., Park; Sunday, Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m., Lark.

Evgueni Khaldei: A Photographer Under Stalin
World and personal history fuse in one person: a Russian-Jewish photojournalist who died last year at the age of 80. Khaldei walks us through his remarkable life, from agitprop shots of World War II to iconic portraits of Big Joe. Despite his skill and success, he was fired twice (Tass in 1948 and Pravda in 1972) in anti-Semitic purges. A loyal Russian, Khaldei never understood why his country turned on him. The most heartbreaking moment comes when the lively septuagenarian soberly recalls destroying his prints and plates of Jewish actors and intellectuals executed by Stalin. Khaldei would have met the same fate if caught with the photos, but no trace now remains of those courageous souls.

Plays Thursday, July 23, 1 p.m., Castro (free screening); Wednesday, July 29, 3 p.m., UC (free screening).

Florentene
An undisputed highlight, this sparkling Gen-X Israeli TV series has heart, smarts, and unexpected emotional impact. Set in a boho section of south Tel Aviv named Florentene, the show tracks an ensemble of easy-on-the-eyes, self-obsessed gays and straights in perpetual pursuit of love and sex (they rarely confuse the two). The first six half-hour episodes (screening on one program) are packed with Western pop and movie references, but we're a ways from Melrose Place. There's the 23-year-old who loses her virginity on Yom Kippur and the gay guy who comes out to his family during Prime Minister Rabin's funeral. Rumors of Judaism waft in from Jerusalem the way environmental and political awareness seeps into L.A. from San Francisco. What truly elevates Florentene above soap opera is a genuine interest in charting its characters' growth, and a generosity of spirit that precludes stereotypes like "the slut" or "the asshole." This is must-see TV.

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