Most niche film festivals stick pretty much to their subject. With the Silent Film Festival, you get silent movies. Tranny Fest features, well, trannies. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, now in its 22nd year, may be unique in representing not only Jews, but also a group that stands in dire opposition to them. One of the most appealing aspects of the fest is its recognition of the Palestinians.
Two of the best documentaries on the subject are on the same bill. Etienne Kallos and Mikayla Mickelberg's Living in Conflictexplores the complex blending of Israeli and Palestinian culture by looking at five people who incarnate it, including an elderly Jewish doctor living in Arab Jericho and a young Palestinian artist in Israel. In showing mutual acceptance between individuals, the film makes a powerful case that solutions lie with people, not governments. Rachel Leah Jones' 500 Dunam on the Moonwrenchingly examines daily life in an Israeli artists' colony built on a destroyed Arab village.
One of the fest's highlights, Richard Trank's In Search of Peace (Part One: 1948-1967), uses extensive archival footage, historical narrative, and personal stories to reconstruct Israel's chaotic beginnings. This epic film's attempts at balance are sometimes undermined by triumphalist touches, from swelling music to iconic close-ups of the major players. But Trank's narrative push and expert manipulation of the material make this a must-see regardless of one's politics.
The fest also offers fresh takes on the Jewish Diaspora. Nikila Cole's enchanting Wanderings: A Journey to Connect follows the filmmaker and her 12-year-old daughter to Jewish communities (one with only 14 people) in Jamaica, the Philippines, Iceland, Curaçao, and India. The rarely noted "Dixie Diaspora" is the subject of Brian Bain's amusing Shalom Y'All.Who knew that Jews fought for the South in the Civil War (some even "passing for white" as blacks did) and created such resistible culinary curiosities as lox, bagels, and grits?
Education and social activism, long-standing traditions in the Jewish community, dovetail in Across Time and Space, Kathryn Golden's loving portrait of the Roeper schools and their creators. These small, progressive institutions, based on love and respect, were started by escapees from Nazi terror; they changed the lives of many disadvantaged or "troubled" youth in the 1950s. Joel Katz's enlightening Strange Fruit takes a wide-ranging look at the radical effect the grim title tune, made famous by Billie Holiday but written by Jewish teacher and activist Abel Meeropol, had on American culture. On a more upbeat note, Lisa Udelson's witty Lifetime Guarantee, about folk singer Phranc, shows that Jewishness, lesbianism, folk singing, and Tupperware have much more in common than anyone thought.