The Bay Area's most political film fest marks its 20th anniversary at a peculiarly untethered moment in the Jewish saga: The Holocaust is fading into the past as the survivors' club dwindles, while the state of Israel -- the other 20th-century phenomenon of Jewish history -- lurches reluctantly toward a future that might include coexistence with the Palestinians or a secular-religious civil war. The current crop of Israeli films eloquently conveys the national anxiety. Vulcan Junction, a clichéd yet compelling exercise in rock 'n' roll nostalgia circa 1973, feverishly returns us to the summit of Israeli self-assurance before the Yom Kippur war pricked the bubble. The superior Yana's Friends, which displays the refreshing chaos and shifting tones one associates with Eastern European films, examines the selfish aggression and xenophobia of modern Tel Aviv through the prism of Russian immigrants.
The Holocaust is revisited through the specter of genocide überorganizer Adolf Eichmann, whose painstaking 1961 trial in Jerusalem is exhumed from the video archives in the ponderous, numbing documentary The Specialist. A more rewarding choice is the sublime Voyages (Tracks), Emmanuel Finkiel's delicately nuanced and deceptively tough-minded fictional meditation on elderly survivors that also played the S.F. International Film Festival. (Finkiel's equally moving 1995 featurette, Madame Jacques on the Croisette, screens in the fest as well.)
Every Jewish Film Festival has its lighter side, and music parts the clouds this year. September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill returns from 1995 with its performances by Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and other iconoclasts; the San Francisco Sinfonietta Orchestra opens the program with live classical Weill compositions. The brilliant Hungarian composer Tibor Szemzo (Paragraph 175) conducts his amazing score for Peter Forgacs' devastating Free Fall (1996), an excavation of home movies shot by a Hungarian Jew in the decade before the Nazi invasion. The joyous melancholy of jazz buoys The Jazzman From the Gulag, the star-crossed story of Eddy Rosner, a Polish-Jewish bandleader who eventually ran afoul of Stalin. If Weill, Szemzo, and Rosner aren't your idea of light entertainment, the French farce Cours Toujours (Dad on the Run) -- a parable about the difficulty and absurdity of maintaining ancient Jewish traditions in a modern gentile society -- is fueled by a klezmer-flavored score.
The American Jewish experience is linked to the African-American experience in Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, a wrenching account of the 1931 arrest and trial of nine black men for allegedly raping two white women on an Alabama train. A prominent New York Jewish lawyer represented the defendants, but he was equally despised by the court and nine innocent men were imprisoned. In an unusual stroke, fest director Janis Plotkin has programmed Mali maestro Cheick Oumar Sissoko's Genesis, a beautifully panoramic adaptation that filters biblical conflicts and lessons through African tribal rivalry. Unpredictability has been a hallmark of the Jewish Film Festival for two decades -- along with an astute and unapologetic political awareness.
The Jewish Film Festival runs from July 20 to 27 at the Castro (429 Castro), from July 29 to Aug. 3 at the UC Theater (2036 University, Berkeley), from July 30 to Aug. 3 at the Park Theater (1275 El Camino Real, Menlo Park), and Aug. 5 to 7 at the Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth St., San Rafael). Call (925) 866-9559 or visit www.sfjff.org for more info.