With apologies to Lewis Carroll, “seriouser and seriouser” might characterize this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the annual summer event for Bay Area cinephiles and lovers of Jewish history, culture and ideas. But “funnier and funnier” would also do, what with the opening night premiere of “Love, Gilda,” the feature-length documentary homage to the most seriously funny woman in the history of American entertainment.
The new film will screen for one night only, on July 19 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, with Radner’s “SNL” costar Laraine Newman in attendance.
Radner, the Detroit-born actress, writer and comedian, wife of the comic actor Gene Wilder, and a personality beloved by many baby boomers, died of cancer in 1989. “Gilda was the first person to be cast in the original ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the first person to say the word ‘bitch’ on camera and the first to ever talk about cancer in comedic terms,” said SFJFF executive director Lexi Leban. “Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler and so many others of the satirists we love today are all part of Gilda’s legacy.”
Satirists we need today night be closer to the mark. The lineup of the 38th SFJFF reflects a sobering awareness that such societal measures as press freedom, civil rights and judicial powers slide along a spectrum from one historical period and one country to another, and are never inviolate.
Appropriately, the annual Freedom of Expression Award will go this year to Jewish American documentarian Liz Garbus, director of “The Fourth Estate,” which follows the journalists of the New York Times as they cover the Trump presidency.
Garbus also explored the First Amendment with her 2009 documentary about her father, the attorney Martin Garbus, in “Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech.” The award will be presented at the Castro on July 26 followed by a screening of her new film, described by critic Thomas Logoreci as “a fascinating cinema verité look inside one of American journalism’s veteran bastions against fake news.”
The 18-day festival will showcase 67 films from 22 countries at venues in San Francisco, Albany, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael. It will include 11 Big Nights with filmmakers present or post-film events, and 38 premieres, including two world premieres.
One premiere is a newly restored 1924 silent film from Austria, “The City Without Jews,” a dystopian satire about anti-Semitism in Austria between the world wars. Co-presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, it will feature a live performance by the Musical Art Quintet of an original score by Sascha Jacobsen, commissioned by the SFJFF.
“City” is one of a trio of films grouped under the theme “Bless My Homeland Forever: Austria’s Sordid Past.”
“In many ways, Germany has dealt with its wartime past, but Austria has not,” commented Jewish Film Institute program director Jay Rosenblatt, “and with these three excellent films, we thought this a good moment to take a look at it.”
“Murer — Anatomy of a Trial” is a courtroom drama based on the trial of Franz Murer, the Austrian SS officer in charge of the Vilna Ghetto, where he became known as “the Butcher of Vilnius.” He served seven years in a Soviet labor camp before the Austrian postwar government secured his release. “The Waldheim Waltz, ” the festival’s centerpiece documentary, examines former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s 1986 election to the Austrian presidency, despite revelations of his Nazi past.
“‘Waldheim Waltz’ is a very interesting and timely film, which has resonance with what is going on in our own country today,” Leban commented.
Another much-anticipated world premiere is “Who Will Write Our History,” about the Polish Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum and the inhabitants of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, who secretly documented for posterity what they were enduring under the Nazi occupation.
“This is a powerful and amazingly well-crafted film with high production values,” Leban said. Director Roberta Grossman (“Seeing Allred”) will take questions at the San Francisco, Palo Alto and Albany screenings
Filmmakers from around the world continue to probe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Viewers can expect to gain unique perspectives and new information from several related films offered in this festival.
“The Oslo Diaries,” an Israeli-Canadian co-production, is a behind-the-scenes deep dive into the secret and unofficial negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government that resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accord. It opens the East Bay portion of the festival July 26 at the Albany Twin, also screening at CinéArts in Palo Alto and at the Castro. An interesting counterpoint is “Naila and the Uprising,” in which key Palestinian women discuss their efforts to negotiate a peace with Israel well ahead of Yasser Arafat’s discussions in Oslo, and how the accord’s marginalization of West Bank residents contributed to the first intifada.
“Wajib,” a 2017 Palestinian feature film, explores the current reality more intimately through the eyes of two generations of Palestinians. Finally, “The Man Who Stole Banksy” is an Italian documentary about the impact of the street artist’s paintings on the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
Another thematic focal point is “Hands On/Hands Off: Anatomy of a Feminist Film Movement.” In the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements of the past year, the festival offers two contemporary documentaries, “Netizens” and “Roll Red Roll,” plus a classic feature, “Baby Face,” which frame activist responses to sexual harassment through the powerful medium of film.
And “black•ish /jew•ish” offers four films that question attitudes, relationships and stereotypes in regard to racial and cultural identities. “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” is a documentary about the interplay of African American and Jewish figures behind the iconic jazz label, while “Satan & Adam” traces a longstanding friendship between a Jewish harmonica player and a black busker from Harlem who form a blues duo. “Crossroads” tells the tale of a Jewish lacrosse coach and his African American team at a North Carolina charter school. The documentary “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” is the closing-night film in San Rafael, presented in partnership with the Museum of the African Diaspora.
This year’s lineup includes a large number of feature-length documentaries, not because festival screeners prefer docs over feature films, but rather because of their commitment to scheduling the best films in all genres that are both relevant and accessible.
“We like to look at the most talented films around the world today, and how they respond to the zeitgeist,” said Leban.
The high quality of the documentary shorts reflects the fact that SFJFF is now an Academy Award-qualifying festival in the documentary (short subject) category. The film that receives the juried best short documentary award in the festival will be eligible to be nominated for an Oscar in that category.
Of local interest, “Chasing Portraits” is first-time Bay Area filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki’s documentary about her quest to locate her Polish Jewish great-grandfather’s artwork, which disappeared after his deportation to the Warsaw Ghetto and then Majdanek concentration camp.
Finally, a Take Action Day at the Castro will present films on social issues followed by panel discussions to help viewers channel their concerns into action. The festival also is bringing back the free Saturday and Sunday morning screenings for single mothers with young children.