Israeli photographer and activist Guy Hircefeld in "Guy Hircefeld, a Guy With a Camera" (Photo/El Dorado Films)
Israeli photographer and activist Guy Hircefeld in "Guy Hircefeld, a Guy With a Camera" (Photo/El Dorado Films)

Documentary shorts at S.F. Jewish Film Fest focus on family heroes

Grandfathers, grandmothers, families and survival are common denominators of the five short documentary films playing in this year’s “Jews in Shorts” program at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. But they range widely in both style and substance.

In “Granny Knows Best,” a seven-minute film from the United Kingdom, a Tinder-addicted bachelor takes relationship advice from his German grandma and her younger boyfriend with hilarious results.

In the six-minute Israeli short “Close the Shutters,”still photography, animation and stop-motion techniques weave together a young man’s memories of his grandfather.

Portrait of My Family in My Thirteenth Year,” also from Israel, is a 16-minute live-action film-within-a-film in which the subject tries to direct a scene re-creating the day his dog died — only to discover that his father remembers the events very differently.

The last two films, “The Starfish” and “Guy Hircefeld, a Guy With a Camera,” are about two very different kinds of heroic Jewish men.

The five films playing in one program will be shown twice, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on July 25 and at the Albany Twin on July 31. Both directors, New Yorker Tyler Gildin and San Francisco filmmaker Andrés Gallegos, will be present at the first screening, and Gallegos at the July 31 event as well.

The category is significant for participating filmmakers because, as of last year, the winner of the festival’s best short documentary award will be eligible for consideration in the documentary short subject category of the Academy Awards. Gallegos took home this year’s festival award at a ceremony on July 24 at the Castro Theatre.

Gallegos’ “Guy Hircefeld” is a portrait of a most unusual character, an Israeli man who, after serving in the Israeli military in the 1980s, decided to fight against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, resisting what he sees as ethnic cleansing and environmental warfare. His weapon of choice? A camera.

For the past several years, Hircefeld has photographed repeated incidents in the West Bank, specifically the Jordan Valley, where Palestinian shepherds tending their flocks are being violently confronted by Jewish settlers. Sometimes he brings other Israelis with him — also “armed” with cameras. The 47-year old Hircefeld believes their documentation of everyday hostilities directed at Palestinians either by settlers or Israeli soldiers may serve to protect them from false accusations and other abuses.

Viewers of the film may find the footage shocking, even if they think they’ve seen it all. But the filmmaker also captures moments of immense tenderness, revealing the very real brotherhood formed between Hircefeld and the Palestinian communities that have come to trust him.

The Chilean-born director, who has lived in the Bay Area since about 2013, visited Israel for the first time while working as the cinematographer on another Bay Area film, “The Objector,” directed by Molly Stuart. He met Hircefeld while on the shoot.

“For me, as a camera person, our connection was quick,” Gallegos said. “I was moved that he was trying to do some good for people that needed protection. One of my goals was to inspire people. It’s a call to action.”

Stuart agreed to serve as producer of Gallegos’ 12-minute short, which was executive-produced by Daniel Bernardi, Gallegos’ former film professor at San Francisco State and founder of El Dorado Films. It has been screened at several small film festivals, but this will be its California premiere and first showing at a Jewish film festival. SFJFF programmers went after it with great interest.

“We felt it was a very powerful film about someone who goes through a political transformation and is willing to put his body on the line,” said program director Jay Rosenblatt. “The scene where settlers are attacking the protesters and throwing stones at them and at Guy was quite visceral and gives us a strong sense of the intensity of the conflict. It felt as if the stones were coming at us, the viewers. We were also thrilled to support a local SFSU filmmaker.”

The hero of “The Starfish,” the longest of these films at just under 40 minutes, is on the other side of the spectrum of Jewish male “types”: a World War II survivor who came to the U.S. as a child refugee. Yet Herb Gildin, who was 88 at the time his grandson Tyler Gildin filmed most of the interviews, is, in an entirely different way, a protector of others.

“He was the grandfather you’d want to have, the father you’d want, the husband you’d want and the employer you’d want,” Gildin told J., describing his motive for making the film. His grandfather became the patriarch of a large multigenerational American family and scion of a large lighting company with branches from New York to Hayward, California. Scenes shot in the New York plant evidence the senior Gildin’s familiar way with his employees: “I think he knew everybody on a first name basis,” the filmmaker says.

That these humanistic traits were formed by his hard wartime experiences is the film’s thesis. Born into a happy, prosperous Jewish family in Germany, Herb, then 10 years old, was sent with his two older sisters to live with a Swedish family as the Nazi regime took over the country. Their rescue was sponsored by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The three children spent two years with their Swedish hosts, bonding with their foster family. Meanwhile, their parents made it to the U.S. and sent for them when they were able. The three children traveled alone from Sweden east across the Soviet Union, to New York. Herb Gildin ended up marrying a woman who became his equal partner in postwar business efforts, and their purchase of a small lightbulb company grew into Satco, a national lighting brand that established the close-knit family’s fortunes.

The story of Herb Gildin and his sisters’ Swedish sojourn was known to their descendants in a scattered, anecdotal way. But as the film recounts, the experience was folded away into the past. In 2001, Herb’s daughter Mindy encouraged him to return to Sweden to visit the family that had embraced him and his sisters as children. That event, miraculously preserved in family video footage, now forms the core of Tyler Gildin’s heartfelt tribute to human goodness.

Gildin, 29, attended the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University and produced corporate films until the passing of his great-aunt made him think about sitting down with his grandfather to hear the whole story.

Herb Gildin articulates his thoughts with the ripeness of his age and perspective of a life successfully rescued.

“What does Adolf Hitler mean to a 10-year-old?” he retorts to Tyler’s questions about his memories of the war. “It is all about your self, your family.”

He tells Tyler that the only thing he regrets was not having returned to Sweden decades before. “How do you convey gratitude and thanks for life?” he asks, quite movingly.

Herb Gildin passed away just two months ago, “almost two years from the day I started filming,” Tyler said. His parents, however, will attend the San Francisco screening on July 25 at the Castro.

“I am more motivated than ever to get his beautiful story out there so the world can know the courageous and determined man he was,” he said.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.