A “L’chaim!” usually climaxes major Jewish milestones and holidays, so it’s no surprise that several of the five short narrative films in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival are unified by that life-affirming toast.
While most of the full-length films throughout the festival are preceded by a short, the “Jews in Shorts: Narratives” program lets festival-goers enjoy five of the best in one sitting. Though their subjects are unrelated, the directors employ a quintessentially joyous religious toast to make a more ironic or somber point.
In “Masks On,” a Hebrew-language film about an Israeli family during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the parents and grandparents drink alcohol every day while they watch the news, between putting on masks to avoid being killed “like bugs” by poisonous gas. Their two tween daughters look forward to being able to drink one day, too. At the end of the film, the eldest reveals that she knows more about the invasion than her family would like. Her dad finally serves her the alcoholic beverage he has been drinking throughout the film, and the family raises cups in a “l’chaim!” as the newscaster reports: “As it seems, it’s too early to say the danger to Israel has passed.”
In “Summer,” two Hasidic girls at an ultra-Orthodox camp in the Catskills say they want a “l’chaim.” But it’s a double entendre: Oppressed, confused, sexually curious and adventurous, they really want to figure out how to achieve orgasm – i.e., “have a l’chaim” — but in the end the experience confuses them more. The bolder of the pair, Batyah, snuck in a stolen bottle of wine and a forbidden book about female sexuality to show to her friend Shani, who has a closeted crush on Batyah. Both assist each other in their voyage to sexual climax, although the scene cuts off before the viewer can really know what happened. The next morning, the “l’chaim” leaves a bitter taste, as Batyah has a hangover and Shani has an emotional one.
“The Outer Circle” presents another clash of cultures: Daniel, a Jewish man of Iraqi descent living with his family in England, brings to Rosh Hashanah dinner his very English girlfriend, Katherine, who is converting to Judaism. After prayers, things become decidedly less spiritual. When the couple tells the family how difficult the process of religious conversion has been for Katherine, Daniel’s mom bursts into a tirade in a language Katherine cannot possibly understand.
But the movie would not be Jewish without its best moment, which is both funny and profound. “Not only are we Jewish, we are Sephardi; not only are we Sephardi, we are Iraqi; and not only are we Iraqi, we are Baghdadi,” Daniel’s mom says before throwing down her napkin and leaving the table. And the Jewish-on-Jewish and Jewish-on-Christian issues continue to reverberate.
“The Entertainer,” directed by “Disobedience” actor Jonathan Schey, does not have a “l’chaim” moment, but instead features a bat mitzvah in which the main character, Paul, played by English actor Toby Jones, is hired as the entertainer. Failing to perform card tricks because of his secret boozing, Paul reveals the dark side of a simcha, as the film contrasts the world of the hired staff with that of the celebrants.
The other Hebrew-language film in the program, “212,” doesn’t deliver a particularly Israeli or Jewish message. Rather, it speaks to the often casual approach to death among professionals who care for the aged. As the director of a nursing home experiences the death of a patient, he is more worried about the rain that broke his umbrella and his stolen parking spot. A moment of silence for the deceased woman becomes mere routine, as do the medic’s unceremonious attempts to revive her heartbeat.
While the other films point out the mundane or serious aspects of significant Jewish holidays and moments, this film grappling with the final life passage shows how major events happen during ordinary days, and how we often miss them.