SF Jewish Film Festival

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The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its 30th year as the self-described "world's oldest and largest Jewish film festival." Held in five different theaters in the Bay Area, including San Francisco's Castro Theatre, the 57 various works - exhibiting a "Jewish aesthetic" - hail from 14 different countries including Israel, the Czech Republic, France and Russia.

While a pre-festival kickoff party celebrated the "nice-Jewish-girl next-door" aka Baby in a screening of "Dirty Dancing," the majority of the films are from the last couple of years, and many occupied themselves not only with wartime drama, but also modern-day Jewish experiences. Director Tali Shalom Ezer's "Surrogate" examines relationships, both healthy and abusive, between male relatives, while Cristian Jimenez's "Ilusiones Opticas" portrays the divide between perception and reality.

The festival will run from July 24 through August 9, moving from San Francisco to Berkeley and Palo Alto, and finally making a stop in San Rafael to celebrate the wide variety of voices and perspectives that can fit under the umbrella of Jewishness.

-Hayley Hosman

Mrs. Moscowitz and the Cats

dir. Jorge Gurvich

Contrary to the title this is not the story of an old lady and her many cats. Not to disappoint cat-lovers, but the furry creatures are barely visible, aside from making a brief appearance. Because of them, however, Yolanda Moscowitz (Rita Zohar) lands in the geriatric ward in her attempts to shoo them away. She is uncomfortable with her stay and in a constant state of bewilderment. Based on the montage of her daily routine, we see that she puts great care into her appearance though she leads an isolated life. So you can imagine her shock when she is placed in a nondescript hospital gown, void of her usual carefully-fashioned curls and makeup.

When she finally accepts her surroundings, Yolanda finds herself building unexpected relationships, whether it's with her roommate or a charming, ex-soccer player. After the death of her husband, Yolanda appears to have cut herself off from the world but finds herself regaining her youth in the hospital. Despite seeing death around her, Yoland has never felt more alive. "Mrs. Moscowitz and the Cats" is light-hearted and hopeful film that proves that age is not a constraint to living out your life.

-Cynthia Kang

Jaffa

dir. Keren Yedaya

Israeli-Palestinian politics take a backseat to dinner table diplomacy in Keren Yedaya's latest work, "Jaffa." The potent film-cum-allegory follows Reuven Wolf's (Moni Moshonov) family-run garage, in which he employs son Meir (Roy Assaf) and daughter Mali (Dana Ivgy).

Also employed is the Palestinian Toufik (Mahmoud Shalaby), with whom Mali has an ongoing illicit affair.

Despite antagonism between Meir's ain't-getting-any aggression and Toufik's star-employee status, everything operates sufficiently smoothly; Meir's rage is well-concealed under the film's yellow shadows.

Tensions comes to a head when the real head of the Wolf household, Reuven's wife, Ossi (Ronit Elkabetz), mishandles an argument with Meir one evening, instigating a series of events that alter the future of the Wolf pack.

While the film alludes to the potential for repaired Israeli-Palestinian relations, it does so by chronicling a family unaware that its main business is not car repair, but its own slow dismantling.

-Liz Mak

The Wolberg Family

dir. Axelle Ropert

After struggling for years to find success in his small French Basque town, Mayor Simon Wolberg (Francois Damiens) appears to have succeeded. He strives to modernize the countryside, bringing changes applauded by the masses. He gives speeches, shakes hands, visits homes but is detached from his family. Superficially, Simon is the dutiful father and supporter, providing every materialistic need. He is so focused on his work that he fails to connect with his wife and children. Ironically, he lends a sympathetic ear to his fellow citizens yet is oblivious to the problems inside his house. In the midst of planning his daughter's 18th birthday party, secrets begin to tumble out and Simon must face what he has long since ignored.

Damiens settles comfortably into his role. Though the protagonist is not immediately likable, Damiens puts his character in a more position light, as his actions and emotional glances make Simon more realistic and endearing to audiences. Director Axelle Ropert's "The Wolberg Family," is slow-paced in terms of plot but the cinematography and interactions between characters make it a poignant film.

-Cynthia Kang

War Against the Weak

dir. Justin Strawhand

We all know that the Nazis used eugenics as an excuse to classify and wipe out large groups of people. In "War Against the Weak," we not only learn that eugenics was a "science" born out of American doctors in the academic elite - doctors who were also responsible for creating the SAT.

Going back to Darwin and Malthus, the film traces the history of eugenics in excruciating detail. "War Against the Weak" gets bogged down by its focus on minutiae. There are so many references to famous eugenicists that the film grows into a nightmarish blur. The whirling texts and haunting images eventually distract from the horror story beneath it all.

The most terrifying thing, of course, is that these horrible ideas were fleshed out by ostensibly normal, respected people. This is an avenue that the "War Against the Weak" doesn't travel. Instead it makes do with menacing readings of the doctors' journals, interspersed with exploitative interviews of a heroin addict, an albino man and others whose conditions would mark them as "feeble-minded."

-Max Siegel

Ingelore

dir. Frank Stiefel

Most human interest documentaries from World War II seem to narrow in on the Holocaust. "Ingelore" offers a respite in its titular subject, a deaf German Jew who managed to emigrate in 1940. Speaking in raspy, fractured English, Ingelore gives a monologue about her difficult life in a sterile studio. Director Stiefel tries to make things exciting by falling back on a mish-mash of styles, including splicing in generic archive footage.

Stiefel does, however, appear to gain Ingelore's trust, as she tells a very personal story in which two Nazis rape her in the street. After she fled to America, Ingelore discovered that she was pregnant. But Stiefel pushes the matter too far with sensationalized reenactments of Ingelore waiting in a doctor's office for her abortion. However, Ingelore says that she was happy to have the operation, given the circumstances of her pregnancy. Rather than deal with these heady implications, Stiefel moves out of the studio and into the present day, filming Ingelore's family having a Seder. The point is that we never forget what these people went through. Ingelore's life is an inspiration, but there will hopefully be more nuanced ways of telling stories like hers in the future.

-Max Siegel

Ilusiones Opticas

dir. Cristian Jimenez

Perhaps Cristian Jimenez hoped to leave his audience in awe of the subtle intricacies that connect us to complete strangers, but his dark comedy "Ilusiones Opticas" only makes you wonder why the characters aren't better connected. A blind skier, a voyeuristic security guard, an unemployed healthcare worker and a breast implant-seeking secretary make up the group of oddballs who Jimenez would have us believe make some kind of impact on each other's lives. In actuality, they are only loosely associated with one another, and in ways that distract from their individual problems.

Though "Ilusiones" lacks a plot line that ties its events together, it does lend a lightness to the characters' general feeling of dissatisfaction: a more enjoyable aspect of the film is the dry humor that pervades the mundane dialogue. A tinker-toy soundtrack adds to the film's farcical mood. By the end, each character has received some consolation prize for their efforts (Jimenez seems to be too cynical for happy endings), but the audience will be left disappointed. For a few chuckles, "Ilusiones Opticas" drags on for half an hour longer than it needs, and still ends inconclusively.

-Catherine Kim

Protektor

dir. Marek Najbrt

It's a glossy wartime era in Marek Najbrt's

"Protektor," which follows a married couple, radio announcer Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) and his

wife, rising actress Hana (Jana Plodkov) - during the arrival of German forces on Czech soil. The Vrbatas face a quandary: Should Hana, a Jew, risk danger and stay with he husband, or leave the country, and abandon a burgeoning acting career? Should Emil become the new radio mouthpiece for the Reich, if it means that his German overseer will conveniently "forget" Hana's Jewish background? (Evidently.) And further: How much will you give up, when it comes to morals and creature comforts? (A lot.) "Silly? You think love is silly?" Hana asks, in character. In "Protektor," love is silly, almost deeply so. It's only a foolish love that can validate partying with the enemy and sleeping with other women, under the guise of protecting your wife.

The film is self-consciously stylized and polished, with touches of noir and the overly theatrical. It's an arthouse film rich with visual stimuli, though weak in its emotional clout. Here, though, it's not about individuals or the feelings they engender, but betrayal to oneself and to others close by, and the moral compromise provoked by war.

-Liz Mak

Surrogate

dir. Tali Shalom Ezer

Israeli director Tali Shalom Ezer's 2008 film, "Surrogate," is a impressionistic rendering of abuse and the path back to normalcy, in the case of lead character Eli (Amir Wolf) and his pseudo-therapist, Hagar (Lana Ettinger). Shot with a digital handheld camera, with heightened cyans, Eli is referred to surrogate Hagar by his therapist Dr. Stein, but while there may be a medical professional's stamp of approval on the whole scenario, the doctor-patient relationship at hand pays little mind to rules barring sexual intimacy. In fact, in "Surrogate," it seems to be that the aforementioned path to recovery for a victim of abuse is to screw the demons away.

Yet the actors seem to make it work. Ettinger is both maternal (how oedipal) and flirtatious in her role as sexual healer, and Wolf's portrayal of Eli is fraught with a complexity that festers below the surface of quotidian scenarios. Perhaps it is Eli's healthy relationship with his nephew that shines the most in this film about how childhood affects adult life. Despite Eli's abusive relationship with an older man as a child, another effective path to recovery emerges, foregrounded by Eli and Hagar's afternoon delight sessions.

-Hayley Hosman

Tags: SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL, SFJFF, JAFFA, ILLUSIONES, OPTICAS, PROTEKTOR, THE WOLBERG FAMILY, SURROGATE, INGELORE, WAR AGAINST THE WEAK, MRS. MOSCOWITZ AND THE CATS






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