Highlights of the SF Jewish Film Festival

Highlights of the SF Jewish Film Festival

Still from the documentary The Last Laugh

This year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival explores the Jewish experience with films chosen to provoke tribal pride, revelatory epiphanies, and uncomfortable conversations in roughly equal proportion.

The Jewish experience—in Europe, in Israel, and particularly on the New World’s Left Coast—could be described as a continuous campaign of reinvention without fully letting go of the past. To put it another way, the ideal Jewish approach tempers the natural urge to assimilate with a healthy appreciation of history. (Admittedly, one person’s “healthy appreciation” is another person’s “pessimistic obsession.”) This sometimes wrenching, occasionally surreal evolution of identity has been the focus of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival for the last 36 years, with movies specifically picked to provoke tribal pride, revelatory epiphanies, and uncomfortable conversations in roughly equal proportion.

The 2016 edition, running July 29-Aug. 4 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Aug. 5-7 at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland, features such household names as Freedom of Expression Award-winner Norman Lear (spotlighted in the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You), assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Rabin In His Own Words, Aug. 3) and Philip Roth (whose 2008 novel, Indignation, has been adapted into a cerebral, disquieting film about the Jewish-American experience).

Berkeley writer and actor Aaron Davidman, in collaboration with director Dylan Kussman, reimagines his 2014 one-man play, Wrestling Jerusalem (July 31), for the screen. Playing a mind-boggling 17 characters, Davidman offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the past, present, and future of Israelis and Palestinians. Adam Nimoy, a director of episodic television who studied at UC Berkeley, profiles his well-known artist father in the documentary For the Love of Spock (Aug. 1)

Paula Weiman-Kelman’s short doc Torah Treasures and Curious Trash (Aug. 7) shines the spotlight on octogenarian outsider artist and former longtime Berkeley resident Jo Milgrom. Berkeley native Tamir Elterman returns to the Bay Area with Spring Chicken (July 29), a short portrait of a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor with a bottomless appetite for life. The SFJFF also makes room for Berkeley filmmaker Mo Morris’ vibrant recent documentary A New Color: The Art of Edythe Boone (Aug. 4), about the Oakland-based African-American artist and activist.

Berkeley Big Night—the centerpiece of the festival’s East Bay leg—marks the West Coast premiere of The Last Laugh (July 30), Ferne Pearlstein’s astonishingly gutsy (and at the same time, long overdue) documentary about the crystal-clear perils and potential payoffs of cracking jokes about the Holocaust. Does tragedy plus time always equal comedy, or are there some subjects that are off-limits forever? Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman weigh in, as you’d expect.

Fans of warm, witty fiction can anticipate the Bay Area premiere of Argentine writer-director Daniel Burman’s low-key new film, The Tenth Man (SFJFF opening night on July 21, and Aug. 2 at Berkeley Rep). This deeply felt observational comedy centers on a middle-aged expatriate who returns to the Jewish Buenos Aires neighborhood of his youth to reconcile with his father, and gets both more and less than he expected.

The same could be said of the male protagonist in Natasha (July 29), a 16-year-old Russian émigré living with his parents in a comfortable Toronto suburb who falls for the just-arrived younger daughter of his uncle’s new Russian wife. Beautifully adapted by David Bezmozgis from his 2004 book of autobiographical short stories, Natasha delivers a fascinating modern spin on the coming-of-age story and the assimilation saga. With its palpable tension between the lure of a wide-open future and the tethers to family and the past, Natasha nails a universal Jewish experience in 83 taut minutes.