Jewish themes, filmmakers headed to San Francisco festival

From the publicity-averse Coen Brothers to overexposed Anthony Weiner, from the unflinchingly intimate Chantal Akerman to autobiographical Philip Roth, the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival is replete with Jewish artists and personalities.

SFIFF is the first Bay Area showcase for buzzy titles from last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival and January’s Sundance shindig, and many will open theatrically in the coming months. For moviegoers who just can’t wait, or are eager to see and hear the filmmakers in the flesh, SFIFF is the place to be.

Tomer Heymann’s “Mr. Gaga” profiles Ohad Naharin of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. photos/courtesy s.f. film society

The festival begins Thursday, April 21 and runs through May 5 at various San Francisco venues (mostly in the Mission) and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

James Schamus, primarily known as the producer and occasional writer of Ang Lee’s films, adapted Roth’s 2008 novel “Indignation” for his directorial debut (April 30 at the Victoria in the fest’s centerpiece slot). Set during the Korean War, the film (which returns July 29 to Bay Area theaters) stars Logan Lerman as a Jewish kid from New Jersey who learns puzzling and painful life lessons at a small conservative Ohio college.

Former Congress member Weiner blew up his career not once, but twice. The latter occasion, in the middle of his comeback bid to become mayor of New York, was captured on film by his chief of staff, Josh Kriegman. “Weiner” (April 23 at the Victoria and April 25 at Alamo Drafthouse) pulls back the curtain on a combustible mix of sex, power, ego, celebrity and media.

Joel and Ethan Coen often seem to be making movies for themselves, and it’s gravy if anybody else digs them and gets the jokes. They rarely give interviews, and they never hawk or hustle their films. So their April 30

appearance on the Castro stage is both a rarity and a sign of their respect for Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection, this year’s recipients of SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff Award. The four men will engage in conversation before a screening of the Coens’ 1984 debut, “Blood Simple.”

Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar follows YouTube singer Samantha Montgomery in “Presenting Princess Shaw.”

The African American singer Samantha Montgomery posts a cappella recordings to YouTube under the name Princess Shaw when she gets home from her job as a caregiver. On a kibbutz in the Negev, a producer who calls himself Kutiman (real name Ophir Kutiel) discovers one of Montgomery’s vocals. They embark on a collaboration that Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar documents in the inspiring “Presenting Princess Shaw” (May 4 at the Victoria and May 5 at Alamo Drafthouse). The film opens in the Bay Area June 3, so don’t sing the blues if you can’t score a ticket to a festival screening.

The prolific Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann returns to San Francisco with a similarly compelling profile of an artist. “Mr. Gaga” (April 26 at the Roxie and April 28 at the PFA) introduces the world to the life and work of Ohad Naharin, the brilliant and uncompromising artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company. Filled with eye-popping dance sequences spanning four decades, “Mr. Gaga” is manna for dance buffs and everyone else.

Yaelie Kayam’s deeply felt first feature, “Mountain,” the third Israeli film selected for this year’s SFIFF, depicts a collision between the banal and the profound, and the sacred and the profane. An Orthodox Jewish wife finds respite from her endless household tasks in nocturnal strolls around the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, which lead her into unknown worlds. It screens May 1 at the Roxie, May 2 at Alamo Drafthouse and May 3 at the PFA.

Filmmaker Akerman took her own life last October, weeks after premiering what was to be her final film. “No Home Movie” is an intimate, relentless and brave portrait of the relationship between the Belgian filmmaker and her aged, Polish-born mother, who dodged the Nazis and was scarred by the experience. It screens April 22 at Alamo Drafthouse, April 24 at the Roxie and April 30 at the PFA during the festival. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts reprises the film May 19-22 with another documentary, “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman.”

Rebecca Miller, an accomplished author and director nonetheless best known as actor Daniel Day-Lewis’ wife and the late playwright Arthur Miller’s daughter, visits San Francisco with her New York comedy “Maggie’s Plan,” starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. It screens April 23 at the Victoria and April 26 at Alamo Drafthouse, before opening May 27 in local theaters.

On a serious note, local filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk present their acclaimed documentary “Audrie & Daisy,” about female high school students twice abused by sexual assault and Internet harassment. Acquired by Netflix, the film screens April 28 at the Victoria and May 1 at Alamo Drafthouse with several of the subjects on hand.

San Francisco International Film Festival
April 21-May 5.

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.