Local filmmaker sketches French-Jewish cartoonist

If anyone still thinks comic books or graphic novels are strictly kids’ stuff, a few minutes with Parisian cartoonist Joann Sfar will erase that misconception.

San Francisco filmmaker Sam Ball’s evocative and marvelous documentary, “Joann Sfar Draws from Memory,” introduces us to the iconoclastic Jewish artist and filmmaker who topped France’s bestseller list with “The Rabbi’s Cat.”

Inspired by his grandmother’s tales of life in Algeria in the 1920s, Sfar set his talking-cat saga in a neighborhood where Jewish, Arab and French traditions coexisted and overlapped.

Sam Ball

Ball says, “There’s a line in our film from Joann: ‘I wanted to show Jewish kids that their ancestors came from North Africa’ — which is true of about half of France’s Jews — ‘and I wanted to remind Muslim kids that there were Jews in North Africa, and they more or less got along for centuries.’ There’s no reason to have nostalgia because it wasn’t idyllic, but there is something that has been lost.”

“Joann Sfar Draws from Memory” airs on KQED following its appearance in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Sfar’s screen adaptation of “The Rabbi’s Cat” won the César for best animated feature last year and is just beginning to reach the U.S.

Ball, whose numerous short documentaries include a moody portrait of New York Jewish cartoonist Ben Katchor, “Pleasures of Urban Decay” (2000), and “A Bridge of Books” (2001) about the National Yiddish Book Center, was born in France and is fluent in French. He says it’s misleading to view France as an anti-Semitic country, despite the anti-Jewish attacks of recent years.

“France, I think, has a complicated relationship toward ethnicity in general,” he says. “I don’t think Jews are unique in that. But there’s a great fascination in mainstream French culture with anything that has to do with former French colonies, and ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ fits that craving.”

Artist Joann Sfar at work in a Parisian café and a drawing (below) from his book “Maharajah.” photo/sophie constantinou-citizen film

Some of Sfar’s appeal — and certainly his sensitivity — stems from the fact that his father is Algerian and his mother is French (with Ukrainian roots), which makes him Sephardic-Ashkenazi.

For his part, Ball served as associate director of the SFJFF from 1996 to 2000 and started the New Jewish Filmmaking Project — which he continues to produce through his company, Citizen Film — with the film festival the following year. His list of current projects includes a film about “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry,” the column Yosl and Chana Mlotek wrote for the Forward for many years.

In other words, Ball is a maven on films about Jewish culture and Jewish artists.

“I think it’s refreshing to see depictions of Jews that aren’t about gefilte fish or the Holocaust or Yiddishkeit, as much as I love Yiddishkeit,” he says. “This is a movie about the creative process. That’s probably the central preoccupation of the film: How do you take what you’ve been given, both in terms of what’s been handed down to you and your own lived experience. It’s through the act of creation that you grapple with that.”

The one-hour “Joann Sfar Draws from Memory” is preceded by Ball’s “People of the Graphic Novel,” an entertaining, rapid-fire summary of the history and evolution of the comic book. From the creators of “Superman” to serious artists such as Will Eisner (“The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”) and Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), Jews played a major role.

When Ball embarked on “Joann Sfar Draws from Memory,” he discovered the

41-year-old artist’s vast illustrated diaries filled with the everyday incidents in his young children’s lives.

“Joann told me that there’s something Chagall said that really resonates with him: ‘If you want to keep people safe, you put them in paintings.’ For Joann, he puts them in comic books.”

“Joann Sfar Draws from Memory” screens at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, July 29 at CineArts in Palo Alto and airs that night at 11 p.m. on KQED Channel 9. Visit www.kqed.org for information on repeat broadcasts. In French with English subtitles. (Not rated, 61 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.