Haredi claim spotlight in fun double-bill

Yehuda Grovais rebels against some Orthodox beliefs by producing feature-length movies. Printer Israel Kletzkin incurs the wrath of many in his fervent community by (among other things) appearing on television.

These two witty Israelis represent a side of the Haredi that we never see in movies, partly out of secular filmmakers’ ignorance or bias but primarily because most Orthodox Jews refuse to be filmed. Grovais and Kletzkin are exceptions; they adore the camera.

Their gregarious personalities are amply displayed in two terrific one-hour documentaries, “Film Fanatic” and “Yoel, Israel and the Pashkevils,” that play together in the Berkeley and Palo Alto legs of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “Film Fanatic” is co-presented by Peninsula Temple Sholom.

“Film Fanatic” profiles a former insurance salesman and self-taught filmmaker who has directed dozens of thrillers and action flicks with Orthodox Jewish values for the home market. While cinemas, televisions and DVD players are forbidden, Grovais’ audience does not consider it wrong to watch the discs on their computers.

Meanwhile, Grovais’s oeuvre contains exactly zero female roles, in compliance with Orthodox concerns that images of women are sinful. While this kind of hair-splitting will irk or amuse viewers, it serves to reveal that the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox are nowhere near as uniform and conforming as their garb.

Consequently, some in the community appreciate Grovais and others loathe the idea of a Haredi filmmaker. In his defense, he suggests that his movies are better for the “bad Yeshiva kids” than the Jean Claude Van Damme movies they sneak out to see.

The political tensions and financial realities of making films for an Orthodox audience are fascinating, but above all the fast-paced “Film Fanatic” is a portrait of a frustrated artist. Can he, and should he, break out and make non-Orthodox films for a general audience? Grovais has no trouble being true to himself while keeping his religion and being a good father. But he does live in a community that is not particularly liberal.

A different strain of conservatism — unwavering anti-Zionism — runs through “Yoel, Israel and the Pashkevils.” The film presents two rivals, a moderate and an extremist, who ply their trade as pashkevil printers. Pashkevils are the black-and-white posters — treatises, polemics and character assassinations, mostly — that serve as the source of “news” in the absence of TVs.

Yoel, a slender, bearded Dickensian figure, lives with his wife and nine children in a one-room apartment. He doesn’t recognize the Jewish state (its existence interferes with the return of the Messiah), he doesn’t have an ID card and his wife did not claim government support when their last child was born prematurely.

Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza pleases Yoel, but it doesn’t go far enough: He wants disengagement from the whole land, Judea and Samaria. His opposition to the state takes a disturbing form when he and other Haredi disrupt work on a highway allegedly being constructed over Jewish graves.

His cheerful foe, Israel, is more of a Trollope character. He loves to tell jokes and enjoys being a public figure. and prints his name in big letters at the bottom of his pashkevils (unlike his anonymous attackers).

“Yoel, Israel and the Pashkevils” doesn’t have much of a dramatic structure, and is best appreciated as a remarkably candid study of two likable men and their adorable families, and the way they navigate their exhausting and often contentious lives.

These films will likely not provoke the usual outraged response from secular viewers, for the simple reason that most of the conflicts are among Haredi themselves.

Typically, when Israel’s religious community is referenced in a documentary, it is represented as close-minded, intractable and primed to fight against secular Jews. That may be the true picture, but for two hours we’re allowed behind the barricades to glean a more detailed understanding. It’s an opportunity worth seizing.

“Film Fanatic” and “Yoel, Israel and the Pashkevils” screen together at 12:30 p.m. Sat., July 28 at the Aquarius in Palo Alto and 4:15 p.m. Tues., July 31 at the Roda in Berkeley. Tickets: (925) 275-9490 or www.sfjff.org.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.