Film fests do not live on controversy alone, not even the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. After years of living dangerously, with events marked by shouting matches and internal upheavals over hot-button-political offerings — most of them centering on Israeli-Palestinian relations — the reconstituted, suitably chastised SFJFF last year settled into what might be termed a kinder, gentler mode.
Nostalgia (always popular) was in, while cutting-edge doubts about the West Bank and Gaza were out. Well, perhaps not entirely. The world's longest-running Jewish film festival didn't gain its reputation for thought-provoking evenings by sticking to creampuff sitcoms and Holocaust dramas. And any fest that has filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt as program director can be counted on to screen its share of artistically challenging oddities. But still.
The feisty Bay Area brand of liberal-lefty coverage of the current Middle East situation can be found at this year's festival, but you're going to have to search it out (see Sharqiya and Ameer Got His Gun, below). Instead, the main thrust of the 32nd-annual SFJFF is the Old Days: Tin Pan Alley, multiculti Berkeley hippies from the Sixties, a Jewish-American athlete who defied Hitler, the tribulations of Roman Polanski, Bubbie and Zadie recalling long-ago tragedies and triumphs, and the eternal struggle against anti-Zionist hoodlums. To borrow the festival advertising's humorous triplet device: A few shnorrers, more than enough shmegegge, and a distinct lack of shpilkes in tuckus. Drink an extra cup of coffee.
For pop-music fans of a certain age, just seeing "(Pomus)" or "(Pomus-Shuman)" on a record label guarantees a good time. As vividly explained in Peter Miller and Will Hechter's bubbly documentary A.K.A. Doc Pomus, songwriter Doc Pomus (1925-1991), born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn, was responsible for a mother lode of hits from the Fifties through the Eighties, whether on his own or in collaboration with Mort Shuman, Phil Spector, or Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack. Elvis Presley ("Viva Las Vegas," "Surrender") and The Drifters ("Save the Last Dance for Me," "This Magic Moment") were his two most prominent clients, although he contributed memorable songs to Ray Charles ("Lonely Avenue"), Dion and the Belmonts ("Teenager in Love"), and Andy Williams ("Can't Get Used to Losing You"), among others.
Doc's heartfelt lyrics of pain and longing were undoubtedly the product of his disability — a childhood bout with polio left him on crutches the rest of his life — but his outsider point of view was confirmed by his enthusiasm for African-American music. In the New York R&B nightclubs he haunted in his youth, he was most definitely the only white, Jewish polio victim in the crowd. Blues was "a midnight lady with a love lock on my soul," he wrote. Such illustrious talking heads as Tom Waits and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller sing his praises, and we marvel at the energy of this man, an irrepressible natural born lover. A.K.A. Doc Pomus plays the Roda Theatre (2025 Addison St., Berkeley) on August 4.
As long as we're in the Brill Building, let's pick up the story of Paul Simon's mega-successful album Graceland, with which the erstwhile Tin Pan Alley singer-songwriter revived his career in 1985. In Under African Skies, documentarian Joe Berlinger tags along with Simon as he revisits South Africa on Graceland's 25th anniversary, hooking up with the local musicians (Ladysmith Black Mambazo, et al) he worked with then. And the same nagging question comes up: Why did Simon defy a UN international cultural boycott by recording the album in the then-apartheid-governed country? The only thing the older but presumably wiser Simon can say now is that he didn't quite understand the politics. Right. We encounter the Eternal Search for the Authentic and other knotty problems, and Berlinger's camera coolly drinks it all in. David Byrne, Philip Glass, and Hugh Masakela all chime in with their thoughts on the subject. How does this fit into the Jewish Film Festival? Simon is nominally Jewish. It screens on July 28 at the Roda.
As if to wash the taste of the previous film out of our mouths, Rachel Leah Jones' marvelous Gypsy Davy plunges deep into the creative spirit with a very personal documentary reflection on her father, traditional flamenco guitarist David Serva. Born David Jones and raised in Berkeley, the young musician established himself in the Bay Area flamenco scene in the 1970s, when he and Rachel's mother, a dancer, were known in their neighborhood as the King and Queen of Spain. Serva, who evidently has a passion for Jewish women as well as for the soul of Andalucía, is a true rolling stone, self-centered and always a little distant. He's no one to become attached to, yet his playing is angelic.
Gypsy Davy is the Tel Aviv-based Ms. Jones' attempt to reconcile the strands of family, art, and fate in her father's life, and her own. As such, it's as elusive as a breeze on a hot afternoon in Morón de la Frontera. The guitar fantasies of Serva and his mentor Diego del Gastor are worth the price of admission, and the filmmaker creates her own emotional embroidery to accompany them. Highly recommended. See it at the Roda, also on July 28.
So you think you know everything you need to know about Roman Polanski? Filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau begs to differ. The maker of Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, and The Pianist sits in a room in Switzerland, across from his friend and gentle inquisitor Andrew Braunsberg, and spins out his life story — from his escape from the Krakow ghetto in WWII to the murder of his wife Sharon Tate to his Los Angeles statutory rape charge, now finally dismissed. Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is fleshed out with perceptively chosen scenes from the director's films, but Polanski's face is always the focus of the action. A remarkable portrait of the artist and his amazingly checkered life, in his own words. See it on August 2 at the Roda.
Marty Glickman, "the first jock-turned-broadcaster," gained his original notoriety when, as a teenage Jewish American from New York, he traveled to Berlin to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games (aka "Hitler's Olympics"). The US Olympic Committee showed extraordinary cowardice in dropping him from his place in the 400-meter relay at the last minute (some say to appease the Führer), but the tenaciously competitive Glickman went on to become a pioneer sportscaster on radio and TV. He's the guy we have to blame for Marv Albert. There's a world of sports memories in James Freedman's Glickman, which shows at the Roda on July 29.
But enough of the past. How are things on the poor fringes of Greater Israel these days, you might ask? Ami Livne's Sharqiya and Naomi Levari's Ameer Got His Gun have the answer, and it isn't pretty. Kamel Najer (played by Adnan Abu Wadi), the protagonist of Sharqiya, is a Bedouin living in a metal-and-plywood shack outside Be'er Sheva in the desert of Southern Israel, and working as a gofer security guard at a bus station. He is underestimated by everyone, including the government. Observing Kamel, we learn that it doesn't matter how long your ancestors have lived in a place, if you don't have title documents the state can take it away. Meanwhile, in the village of Sakhnin in the Lower Galilee, a mild-mannered young man named Ameer Abu Ria joins the Israeli army out of patriotism. He perseveres despite the "dirty Arab" teasing of his comrades. Says Ameer: "It's my country and I'd defend it more than I'd defend myself." Ameer Got His Gun screens at the Roda on August 1; Sharqiya is there on August 4.
Also worth a look: The Moon Is Jewish, Michal Tkaczynski's documentary profile of a previously anti-Semitic Polish soccer hooligan named Pawel who discovers he is actually Jewish, then abruptly converts to Orthodox Judaism ("The souls of all my ancestors woke up in me"); Alain Tasma's drama Broken, which pits a Jewish teacher against an antagonistic class of suburban Paris high-school kids, with disastrous results; and Leo Khasin's equally histrionic Kaddish for a Friend, about an Arab-immigrant youth in contemporary Berlin learning to relate to a pugnacious Russian-Jewish WWII veteran. All of the above "anti-Zionist hoodlum" pics play the Roda Theatre.
On the lighter side: Bradley Leong's agreeably silly multiculti sitcom Dorfman, starring Sara Rue as a Los Angeles wallflower who falls for her Egyptian neighbor. Elliott Gould, who appears in person at San Francisco's Castro Theatre on Sunday, July 22, to accept the festival's Freedom of Expression Award, costars as Deb Dorfman's father — it'll never make his highlight reel. Dorfman screens at the Roda on July 31. Need more cinematic hugs? Try The Day I Saw Your Heart, a French comedy in which self-centered Parisian noodges Mélanie Laurent and Michel Blanc get on each others' nerves. August 2 at the Roda.
The Jewish Film Festival — which begins on Thursday, July 19, in San Francisco and then rolls out to the East Bay on July 28 — utilizes seven different Bay Area venues, including the Oakland Art Murmur (August 3) and the Piedmont Theatre. See SFJFF.org for the latest info and full schedule.