Gritty drama about Israeli teenagers comes to S.F. festival

The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, unspooling April 24 through May 8, offers a small but choice selection of Jewish-themed and Israel-oriented films.

At the top of the list is Mushon Salmona’s up-close and sobering tale of working-class Beersheva teenagers, “Vasermil.” The film takes its title from the city’s venerable soccer field — a stadium to its three young protagonists, but just an ordinary, aging facility to our eyes — and the game represents the promise of a better future that’s perpetually out of reach.

But “Vasermil” isn’t a sports movie as much as a portrait of immigrants and native Israelis whose talents are little match for fractured families, petty criminals, peer pressure and racism. Beersheva is a long way from the pressure cooker that was the Lower East Side back in the day, or the poverty and violence of South Central L.A., but from the looks of this movie it’s well on its way.

The other Israeli title in the festival is “Children of the Sun,” Ran Tal’s oral history of the kibbutz movement that snagged the Best Documentary prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

The Lebanese drama “Under the Bombs” centers on a taxi driver helping a woman look for her son and sister in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel. Writer-director Philippe Aractingi recorded the war’s effects as the bombs fell, then came up with a fictional frame that encompasses his documentary footage.

Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud Al Massad received the Best Cinematography award in the World Documentary category at Sundance this year for “Recycle,” which focuses on a mujahadeen-turned-recycler (and self-taught Islamic scholar) in Zarqa, Jordan.

Other new films of passing Jewish interest are David Mamet’s latest exercise, “Redbelt,” set in the world of mixed martial arts, and “Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts,” a documentary about the new-music composer by Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks (“Shine”).

The great 1920 German expressionist silent film “The Golem” will be reprised April 25 at the Castro with Black Francis (aka Frank Black, of the Pixies) performing the world premiere of his original score.

Last, but hardly least, this year’s honorees include two exceptional Jews. English director Mike Leigh picks up the Founder’s Directing Award and is saluted with a screening of “Topsy-Turvy,” his wonderful film about Gilbert and Sullivan. Longtime Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, whose books include the 1991 history “Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds,” receives the Mel Novikoff Award for “work [that] has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.”

Israeli entry “Vasermil” shows us a modern Israel that is grievously lacking in tenderness or optimism. Teenagers spend most of their time on the streets, avoiding parents who are divorced, occasionally remarried and generally moored in self-pity about their own miserable job prospects.

Dima (David Taplitzky) is a tough, unblinking Russian immigrant who loves his mother and despises his father, plays a lovely piano and deals Ecstacy to his classmates — on those rare occasions when he can be bothered to go to high school.

As the film opens, Dima heists a pizza delivery boy’s scooter for a joyride, dumping it when he’s through. Naturally, Israel-born Shlomi (Nadir Eldad) is furious when he comes out to find the scooter gone, and catches hell from his lowlife boss. He later takes it out on Adiel (Adiel Zamro), a slight, easygoing Ethiopian who happens to be quicksilver on the soccer pitch.

The film sparkles with glimmers of hope — the boys’ various gifts, their mothers’ ineffectual insistence on education, the tough love of school administrators and coaches — but they are like shekels glittering in a vacant lot that turn out to be pieces of broken glass.

The Israelis made the desert bloom, the saying goes, but apparently only up to a point. The titular stadium was erected in 1963 but everything else in Beersheva, from the highway to the mall to the housing clusters plunked down in the barren valley, feels like it just came out of a build-a-nondescript-city box.

Mushon Salmona’s debut feature, with its handheld camerawork, nonprofessional actors and well-chosen locations, is dynamic but not as gritty or violent as most American and European movies set in similar milieus. That may be enough to soothe some viewers.

But as a social-issue drama, “Vasermil” is a blast of a wake-up call. With luck, it not only played Israeli theaters, but the Knesset as well.

“Vasermil” screens at 6:30 p.m. April 30 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and 1 p.m. May 4, 6:45 p.m. May 5 and 7 p.m. May 7 at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco. Tickets cost $10-$12.50 and are available in advance at (925) 866-9559 or at

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.