The 32nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF32) opened at the Castro Theatre last night with the world premiere of Roberta Grossman's fun-sounding documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie). It was a tough personal choice between that and seeing Todd Solondz in person with his new film, Dark Horse, at the SF Film Society Cinema. I opted for the latter, given that Hava Nagila will have three more screenings during the festival, which runs through August 6. The fest resumes tomorrow morning at the Castro Theatre for a six-day residency before branching out into the East, North and South Bay Area. This year's roster boasts 44 narrative and documentary features and here's a glance at the ones I'm most looking forward to.
● A sidebar of SFJFF32 is Jews & Tunes: Spotlight on Music. Besides Hava Nagila, I'm most anticipating bio-doc A.K.A. Doc Pomus, which will be the San Francisco closing night film on Thursday, July 26. Doc Pomus was the stage name for Jerome Felder, a polio-stricken Brooklyn-born Jew who would write the lyrics for some of the best known songs of the early rock era, including "Save the Last Dance For Me" and "Viva Las Vegas." I've also heard great things about Under African Skies, which looks back at Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and its troubled history during the height of international anti-apartheid sentiment. The film won the audience award at this year's SXSW and is directed by esteemed veteran documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost trilogy, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). I have friends who are rabid fans of Australian-born singer-songwriter Ben Lee and they're insisting I not miss Ben Lee: Catch My Disease, especially since Lee himself is expected to attend the July 25 screening at the Castro Theatre. Other films in the Jews in Tunes sidebar include documentary portraits of a flamenco guitarist (Gypsy Davy), a violin virtuoso (God's Fiddler) and a gay, African American, Orthodox Jewish hip-hop artist (Y-Love).
● My favorite film of 2010 was Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a richly-conceived, mythical fantasia about the life of singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. It marked the directing debut of French graphic novelist Sfar and now his creative process can be observed in Sam Ball's documentary, Joann Sfar Draws from Memory. A fascinating seven-minute excerpt is available to preview at Vimeo. Relatedly, the most curious SFJFF32 omission is surely the animated feature The Rabbi's Cat, which Sfar adapted and directed from his own graphic novel. Now I really regret having missed it at the East Bay Jewish Film Festival earlier in the year.
● Two years ago, the SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award was given to Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, writer-creator of the groundbreaking and poignant Israeli TV sit-com Arab Labor. I so enjoyed the three episodes which screened during that festival, I eventually watched all of Seasons 1 & 2 via Netflix. I plan to be there again when SFJFF32 presents several episodes from Arab Labor: Season 3.
● This year's SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award goes to none other than actor Elliott Gould, who will appear for an on-stage interview at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, July 22, followed by a screening of his latest film, Dorfman. Gould must really enjoy spending time in the Bay Area, having accompanied screenings of M*A*S*H back in February at the Castro Theatre and at the Rafael Film Center last November.
● Despite receiving extremely mixed reviews when it premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I have no intention of missing Laurent Bouzereau's Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir. This documentary portrait was filmed during the director's time under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland and consists of an extended conversation between Polanski and Bouzereau that's peppered with film clips. Bouzereau is a personal friend of Polanski and critics have said the film goes beyond fawning (Variety's Rob Nelson called it "supremely subservient.")
● Earlier this year I saw the 2011 narrative feature Free Men, which was about Arab participation in the French Resistance movement of WWII. I was particularly struck by the performance of actor Mahmoud Shalaby as Salim Halali, a real-life, celebrated Algerian singer who was clandestinely both gay and Jewish. I later realized I'd also seen Shalaby's impressive 2009 screen debut in Jaffa (SFJFF30). Shalaby has made two more movies since Free Men and they're both in this year's festival. In A Bottle in the Gaza Sea he stars as a young Gaza Palestinian who takes up e-mail correspondence with an Israeli girl. The formidable Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (Free Zone, Lemon Tree) portrays his mother. Shalaby also has a supporting role in the festival's Centerpiece Film, Lorraine Lévy's The Other Son, a babies-switched-at-birth drama that stars one of my favorite French actresses, Emmanuelle Devos (La Moustache, A Christmas Tale).
● Familiar acting talent is what draws me to three more SFJFF32 films. In Alain Tasma's 2010 TV movie Broken, Anaïs Demoustier (Living on Love Alone, The Snows of Kilimanjaro) stars as a idealistic young teacher in a rough banlieue school. The script was written by Emmanuel Carrère (La Moustache, I'm Glad My Mother is Alive) and it features revered French actress, Ariane Ascaride (wife and muse to director Robert Guédiguian). Another French film, The Day I Saw Your Heart, stars Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Beginners) and Michel Blanc (Monsieur Hire, The Witnesses) as a daughter and father in a contentious relationship. While reviews praise their performances, opinions of the film itself are considerably less enthusiastic. Then the great Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz (The Band'sVisit, Late Marriage) stars in Invisible, about the present-day ramifications of a 1970's serial rapist upon the lives of two women.
● In addition to the documentaries in the Jews & Tunes sidebar, I've got my eye on a few others in this year's festival. The most intriguing to me is Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat, in which the filmmaker discovers evidence of familial connections to high-ranking Nazis in his recently deceased grandmother's Tel Aviv apartment. The film won Best Documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival, an editing prize at Tribeca, and its SFJFF screenings are sponsored by my good friend Michael Ehrenzweig, a longtime supporter of this festival. I'm also hoping to check out Ameer Got His Gun, which profiles a young Arab volunteer who joins the Israeli military, Besa: The Promise, about Albania's role in sheltering Jews during WWII, and The Kingdom of Survival, a discussion of "radical alternative perspectives on the 21st century and the state of democracy in America," featuring interviews with Noam Chomsky and Sasha Lilley.
● Finally, there are three films in the SFJFF32 line-up which I've caught at other festivals and all are recommended. Israeli director Eran Kolirin's The Exchange follows up 2007's arthouse charmer The Band's Visit with something considerably more enigmatic. This was one of the more popular films from this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (my capsule review is here). At that same festival I saw Ra'anan Alexandrowicz' Sundance-winning, Errol Morris-influenced documentary The Law in These Parts, which considers every aspect of the separate and unequal laws governing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Then from last year's Mill Valley Film Festival there's Restoration, a compelling Israeli drama about efforts to rescue one family's ailing antique furniture restoration business