Mill Valley festival spotlights Jewish themes, filmmakers

The season of “serious” movies is well underway, and Jewish themes and filmmakers pervade the Mill Valley Film Festival lineup, unspooling Oct. 8-18 at Marin County venues.

Bay Area filmmaker Eli Adler debuts “Surviving Skokie” (Oct. 11 and 16), a personal documentary that recalls the infamous, inflammatory neo-Nazi parade through Chicago’s sleepy Jewish suburb in 1978. That nasty episode had an unexpectedly constructive effect: Adler’s father, Jack, a Holocaust survivor, was impelled by the existential anti-Semitic threat to open up about his experiences in the camps.

Jewish suffering continues to exert its hold on the present in Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s twisty fictional saga “Remember” (Oct. 11 and 13), starring Christopher Plummer on a late-in-life revenge mission plotted by fellow survivor Martin Landau. This film will likely open commercially in the United States early next year.

“Son of Saul” follows a Jewish prisoner forced to work in a crematorium.

The buried past is the special province of French Jewish documentary maker Marcel Ophuls, whose fearless excavations of French collaboration with the Nazi occupation, “The Sorrow and the Pity” (Oct.16) and “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,” are masterpieces of oral history, investigative journalism and impassioned justice-seeking. Ophuls is the subject of a festival tribute on Oct. 15 that includes an onstage interview and his autobiographical 2013 film, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

The essential Holocaust film of the year, the Cannes-winning concentration camp drama “Son of Saul,” receives its Bay Area premiere Oct. 11 and 12. Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ debut follows a Sonderkommando — a Jewish prisoner forced to work in the crematorium — on a quest to preserve his dignity and humanity.

By contrast, a drug-and-alcohol-addicted suburban housewife played by Sarah Silverman consistently sacrifices her dignity for a hit in the affecting indie drama “I Smile Back.” The renowned comedian takes the stage Oct. 9

for a conversation followed by a screening of the film, a watershed performance that should redefine Silverman as more than a comic and provocateur.

The Mill Valley program features the most talked-about Israeli films of 2015: Avishai Sivan’s black-and-white “Tikkun” (Oct. 14 and 18) explores a young Hassidic scholar’s crisis of faith after a near-death incident, while Tali Shalom Ezer’s wildly discomfiting “Princess” (Oct. 9 and 10) examines the dynamics between a 12-year-old girl and her mother’s boyfriend.

Both Israeli triumphs will return to Bay Area theaters in the coming months, as will “Son of Saul.” That’s not to suggest that you wait for the commercial release, mind you. To the contrary, the Mill Valley Film Festival, marking its 38th season, is an inviting opportunity to see these important films at the beginning of their U.S. circuits, before they are dissected and categorized by reviewers and other moviegoers.

And, of course, there’s the welcome reminder that Jewish artists and issues are right in the middle of the moviegoing dialogue.

The Mill Valley Film Festival
runs Oct. 8-18 at Marin County venues. For a complete schedule, go to

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.