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August 11, 2014

SF Jewish Film Fest Offers Diverse Choices

The 34th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival includes 70 films from 18 countries, with seven world premieres.

Issues of identity, the history of genocide, anti-Semitism in its various insidious guises, a contemporary remounting of the children’s opera “Brundibar” and a complex portrait of intellectual provocateur Susan Sontag are among the diverse subjects of films shown at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A stimulating essayist, film director, novelist, playwright and outspoken cultural critic, Sontag, who died of cancer in 2004, is the focus of Berkeley filmmaker Nancy Kates’ documentary, “Regarding Susan Sontag.” Sontag was a polarizing, highly visible public figure who attracted a legion of admirers and detractors; she differed from many serious intellectuals in that she was also a celebrity who appeared in films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad. (Leibovitz and Sontag were lovers who spent 15 years together before Sontag’s death.) Covering both her professional and personal life, the film touches on Sontag’s groundbreaking essays such as “On Photography” and “Illness as Metaphor” and includes excerpts from her work read aloud by actress Patricia Clarkson and commentary from friends, former lovers, fellow writers and artists including choreographer Lucinda Childs, the late South African author Nadine Gordimer and humorist Fran Lebowitz. As the New York Times noted in Sontag’s obituary, “No one ever called her dull.”

The story of a child struggling to escape the shadow of a famous parent takes on an added dimension when that father is war hero Moshe Dayan, who achieved mythic status in Israel. Through archival footage, home movies, photos and film clips, Dayan’s son Assi reflects on his life-long quest to differentiate himself from his lionized father in “Life as a Rumor,” an engrossing autobiographical documentary originally shown in three parts on Israeli television. Creative, driven and, by his own account, self-destructive, Assi Dayan, who died in May at the age of 68, found refuge in writing and acting but ultimately could not outrun his demons. Strikingly handsome as a young man, he built a successful international career that was frequently interrupted by suicide attempts, the failure of multiple marriages, declining health and psychiatric problems that landed him in mental wards. “I’ve lived several lifetimes,” he recalls in the narration that opens his film. “It’s time to sum up.” He would be dead three years later.

The circumstances under which Czech composer Hans Krasa’s 1938 opera “Brundibar” was first performed, and the sinister purposes for which it was used, could be the basis of a ghoulish fairy tale. Krasa perfected the work while interned at Theresienstadt, a so-called model concentration camp sanitized by the Nazis to deceive the Red Cross inspectors and the outside world about the hideous conditions at the death camps. Footage from the opera showing faces of seemingly happy, singing children was featured in the Nazi propaganda film “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City”; soon after they performed, these same children were dispatched to Auschwitz and gassed, a fate shared by the composer. This horrific legacy is the context for Douglas Wolfsperger’s documentary “Brundibar,” which follows the development of a recent production of the opera by the Berlin Schaubühne Theater. The cast members, a group of troubled youth, travel to Theresienstadt accompanied by an inspiring 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Greta Klingsberg, who, when she was 13 and a prisoner there, played the lead role in “Brundibar” before being deported to Auschwitz. For its youthful participants, the Berlin production is both an illuminating journey back in time and a chance to experience the transformative power of art.

Based on an actual crime whose anti-Semitic implications made the case a sensation in France, Alexandre Arcady’s fast-paced thriller, “24 Days,” recounts the harrowing saga of the Halimis, a family of Moroccan-born, Parisian Jews, and the 1986 kidnapping and torture of their 24-year-old old son, Ilan. Ilan was abducted by a suburban gang (aptly named the Barbarians) after being enticed into a trap by a seductive woman. His mother, Ruth, who wrote a book about the incident, believes the criminals targeted her son and held him for ransom because he was Jewish; it was a motive investigators were initially reluctant to acknowledge. Part suspenseful police procedural, part political commentary, the film, which unfolds during the 24 days of the title, centers on the anxiety of a family torn apart, the tense psychological gamesmanship engaged in by negotiators and captors and the actions of the authorities, whose miscalculations thwarted the rescue.

While Arcady’s film looks at anti-Semitism of the not-so-distant past, “Run Boy Run,” a narrative feature directed by Pepe Danquart, turns to Poland during WWII. It views the Holocaust through the eyes of Srulik, a young war waif faced with a profound moral dilemma: should he deny his heritage so that he can live? Once advised by his father to survive at any cost but never forget he was a Jew, now, with his family dead or presumed dead, he opts for expediency in order to elude capture by the Nazis who are hunting him and other Jews hiding in the forests. He forages for food to stave off hunger, sleeps in the woods and pretends to be an orphaned gentile, changing his name and adopting a false identity that allows him acceptance into the homes of local peasants and farmers, who feed him and provide temporary shelter. But will he remember who he really is when the war is over?

A global perspective of the history of genocide, “Watchers of the Sky” pays tribute to the tenacity and determination of a little-known Polish Jewish lawyer with a compassionate poetic spirit. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the termgenocide in 1944, was an unsung hero who devoted his life to having mass murder recognized as an international crime and establishing the legal framework necessary to prosecute the perpetrators. “Why is the killing of a million,” he asked, “a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” Interweaving imagery of Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Turkish massacre of Armenians, Darfur and other scenes of human slaughter with artistic animated sequences, interviews, news reports, archival materials, Lemkin’s eloquent writings and profiles of human rights advocates such as U.S. Ambassador to the U. N. Samantha Power, Edet Belzberg’s finely crafted documentary testifies to the persistence of genocide as it details past and ongoing atrocities the world community has been unable to deter or adequately punish.

July 24-August 10

Castro Theatre, CineArts@ Palo Alto Square, California Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Grand Lake Theatre, Smith Rafael Film Center, RayKo Photo Center, New Parkway Theater


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