I am a huge fan of short films. Like short stories, the best ones contain no fat — they are shining jewels of few words and powerful images.
This year, for the first time, the five short documentary films showcased in “Jews in Shorts: Documentaries” at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will be juried, with the winner eligible for Academy Award nomination. As someone who tries to see all the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts each year (thank you, Landmark Theatres!), I feel justified in saying that any one of these five would make a fine contender. They’re that good. Don’t let their unfortunate midday screening times dissuade you.
The elderly and music figure largely in four of these films, with the fifth offering a very different look at the human toll of the occupation, as seen through the eyes of one banana-growing family business. The films will be screened twice: July 25 in San Francisco and July 30 in Albany.
“Wendy’s Shabbat” is a sweet little bonbon, iced with chuckles, about a group of elderly Jews in Palm Desert who meet every Friday for Shabbat dinner at a local Wendy’s. “We’re not fancy people,” says one woman, explaining why they chose that unlikely location. The group includes couples, singles and a 97-year-old man who claims to be the oldest practicing rabbi in the country. Underneath the laughter, however, lies wisdom. Noting how many of them live alone, or at least far from their children and grandchildren, one participant says of the weekly ritual, “It gives us a feeling of belonging.”
A standout in this category is “Death Metal Grandma,” which follows Inge, a 94-year-old refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna who, building upon her music background as well as her penchant for writing poetry, adopts a new stage persona as the star of a death-metal act. The film keeps us off-balance with its mashup of weird wonderfulness (she’s unbelievable on “Switzerland’s Got Talent”) and wistful nostalgia. Through it all, the protagonist’s stern refusal to give in to the role assigned her by society as an “old woman” is juxtaposed against her increasing physical frailty. Will her body defeat her will? The camera encourages us to look at the world through her eyes, with many scenes filmed through a window, and others showing her carefully applying makeup in a mirror. “Who is that strange woman?” she asks as she regards her wrinkled visage. Then, shrugging, “You have to do what makes you happy.”
A less celebratory look at aging is offered by “All the Leaves Are Brown.” Shot on film and using a hand-held camera, it evokes home movies of the 1960s in its overlit scenes that feature the main characters — the filmmaker and his father — staring stone-faced at the camera as their disembodied voices narrate the story. The father is losing his memory, and the son — who is experiencing his own excruciating loss — interrogates him about how that feels. What is memory’s role in human relationship? How does forgetting fit into the emotional rubric of life? The disjointedness between their images and the words we hear — later replaced by captions on the screen — conveys the loss of connection the subjects’ conditions impose upon them. The result is almost a musical eloquence.
The last two films, at more than 20 minutes each, barely fit the definition of short, and their expanded length is accompanied by more traditional narrative trajectories, but they are just as engrossing as the others.
“Zusha” is a behind-the-scenes look at one of the more successful Hasidic bands to emerge from the post-Matisyahu wave. Started in 2013 by three guys in Manhattan, the band debuted with a full-length album, “Kavana,” that reached No. 2 on Billboard’s World Albums’ chart, which is pretty interesting considering that many of their songs feature niggunim, or wordless melodies. Although this film follows the traditional format of documentaries about bands, with plenty of concert footage and backstage banter, the band itself is so unusual, and so is the film. How many rock stars daven Mincha between rehearsals? The three young musicians are so endearing that they make this movie a joy to watch — and listen to.
“A Perfect Day for Banana Leaves” is the only Israeli entry in the bunch, and the only one that addresses the occupation. But it does so in a wonderfully unique way that hammers home the message that the conflict isn’t just high-level politics — it’s something that affects ordinary people’s daily lives, on a very practical level. Here we have a third-generation Israeli banana farmer who makes his living shipping bananas to a fruit seller in Gaza, but whose business now suffers under the crushing bureaucracy created by the military occupation. Again, it’s not about politics, or a two-state solution, or whose fault it all is. It’s about two men on opposite sides of a border trying to get on with their lives. And in that mundane focus lives a world of meaning.