29th annual S.F. Jewish Film Festival: Around the world in 19 days: 71 films from 18 countries

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival usually boasts a lineup that its executive director calls “edgier” than most other Jewish film festivals — in North America and the world.

So if there is controversy surrounding the festival’s decision to show the documentary “Rachel” in San Francisco and Berkeley, the general reaction of Peter Stein, the festival’s executive director, would be along the lines of, “Bring it on.”

“It’s a film that deals with a controversial topic, and controversy creates news or is news,” Stein said. “That said, it’s only one of 37 titles in our festival that deals with Israel or is from Israel. It’s only one film out of 71 in our festival, but it’s a worthwhile film and I’m glad it’s in our festival.”

The 29th SFJFF, which starts Thursday, July 23 and runs for nearly three weeks at venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Rafael, will become the first Jewish film festival in the world to show “Rachel,” filmmaker Simone Bitton’s cinematic inquiry into the tangled and polarizing death of American Rachel Corrie in 2003, when she was protesting the destruction of homes in Gaza by Israeli bulldozers.

But beyond “Rachel,” the film festival takes a hard look at a range of issues: social and political, interracial, women’s rights.

Meanwhile, there’s also plenty of feel-good fare — starting with the coming-of-age Australian film “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” on opening night and the centerpiece comedy “A Matter of Size,” and ending with the entertaining Canadian movie “Victoria Day.”

Several films are making their U.S. premiere; many others their first showing in California.

The SFJFF is putting its “edgier” approach front and center this year, with “Rachel” included in a program called “Reel Change” — a showcase of six films that address social issues ranging from activism to immigration to inner-city education.

From left, 8-year-old Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) in “Mary and Max”; home movie footage of William Kunstler in “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe”; a scene from the provocative documentary “Defamation”; Robert de Hoog as a Jew who becomes a neo-Nazi in “Skin.”. photos/courtesy of the sfjff

One of the six, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” deconstructs the famous attorney from the 1960s and ’70s who, after he handled several marquee cases and achieved celebrity status, went on to defend seemingly unscrupulous rapists, cop killers, terrorists and assassins. The documentary is an unflinching attempt to understand the late attorney, and it’s a challenging, not-always-flattering portrait — even though it’s made by his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

Another “Reel Change” offering is “Heart of Stone,” a documentary about a once-proud high school in Newark, N.J., now afflicted with gang violence and other inner-city woes. A work that will likely be shown on PBS some day, the film spotlights a passionate principal and how he calls on a network of former students, including many Jews, to help foster change. Alumni interviewed in the film include Berkeley-based Rabbi Michael Lerner and former Golden State Warriors star player and head coach Al Attles.

“The festival has focused for many years on having a very strong presence, every year, on social issue–oriented films, so these types of films are not necessarily a departure for us,” Stein said. “Every year the festival takes care to find what we hope are really thoughtful and provocative films. This year there was a very strong slate of them, so … it really made sense to create a showcase for them.”

The directors of “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” and “Heart of Stone” — and many other films — will appear in person following the screening of their films. For example, the writer-director of “Defamation,” Israeli Yoav Shamir, will appear after a July 26 screening of his film, in which he examines whether there is too much emphasis on anti-Semitism in constructing the modern Jewish identity.

“This is one of the more anticipated films in the festival,” said Stein, who said the film is tentatively scheduled for theatrical release in December. “Shamir was not a victim of anti-Semitism in Israel, so he was surprised when some of his other films, critical of Israeli politics, started to get him labeled as an anti-Semite.”

The film includes interviews with scholar Norman Finkelstein, a critic of many Jewish viewpoints and a lightning rod for controversy.

Shamir and other filmmakers will appear for Q&A sessions and/or panel discussions to address some of their directorial decisions.

“Rachel” director-screenwriter Bitton, a Moroccan-born Jew who spent many years in Israel and now lives in France, told organizers she was unable to attend the festival. But Rachel’s mother, Cindy Corrie, who runs the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, will be on hand for a Q&A following the film’s July 25 screening at the Castro Theatre.

Of course, the SFJFF is hardly a full slate of only heavy-handed documentaries.

One of the most highly anticipated films this year is “Mary and Max,” a 92-minute claymation heartwarmer that played on opening night of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Tentatively scheduled for wide release next spring, the movie features the voice of Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) as a fat, grumpy, old Jewish New Yorker who starts corresponding with an 8-year-old pen pal in Australia (voiced by actress Toni Collette).

Big-name actors are sprinkled throughout the festival. Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara have roles in “Eve,” a 17-minute short that marks the directorial debut of Hollywood star Natalie Portman, who is Jewish.

Amy Irving (“Crossing Delancey”) has a small role as a Jewish mom in “Adam,” which, in a bit of creative scheduling, will play with “Eve.” A full-length feature about two love-struck kids from different religions, “Adam” stars young English actor Hugh Dancy (“Confessions of a Shopaholic”) and Australian actress Rose Bryne (“Wicker Park”). Writer-director Max Mayer will attend the July 25 screening at the Castro Theatre for a Q&A session, and organizers are hopeful either Dancy and Bryne, or both, will attend as well.

A 19-year-old Anne Bancroft turns up in a 1950 episode of “The Goldbergs,” one of television’s first sitcom hits. In conjunction with the Aviva Kempner documentary “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” four episodes of the sitcom are being packaged and screened, including one in which Bancroft can’t quite bring herself to call her new mother-in-law “Mom.”

The romantic comedy “Hello Goodbye” has French movie stars Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant as a middle-aged Jewish couple whose marriage needs a spark. A French-Israeli collaboration, the film has been picked up by an international distribution company for wide release.

Another star worth mentioning is Ronit Elkabetz in “Zion and His Brother,” a hard-hitting drama set in a Haifa suburb, that premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance this year. Elkabetz won best actress awards from the Israeli Film Academy for her work in “Late Marriage” (2001) and “The Band’s Visit” (2007). Stein predicts that she could follow in the footsteps of Ayelet Zurer and start landing roles in Hollywood.

The festival opens Thursday, July 23 with “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger,” about a nerdy bat mitzvah girl taking her first steps into adulthood. Director Cathy Randall will attend the Castro Theatre screening.

The offering for what organizers call “closing night” (actually just the festival’s final night at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on July 30) is “The Wedding Song.” It is a tale of two women friends — one Arab, the other Jewish — as they negotiate the ethnic minefields of Nazi-occupied Tunisia.

From start to the festival’s actual finish Aug. 10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, there will be 71 films from 18 countries, with a focus not only on social justice but also on Israeli women documentary filmmakers and animation. One of the offerings is a 90-minute string of animated shorts from the United States and Israel called “Jewtoons.”

There’s even a big non-film event: an adult-oriented, rock ‘n’ roll puppet show featuring life-sized puppets from an Israel cult-TV hit called “Red Band,” at 9:30 p.m. July 31 at Cellspace in San Francisco.

The festival’s self-billed showcase film is “A Matter of Size,” an Israeli comedy about a gaggle of overweight men who decide that if you can’t lose it, use it (see review page 13a). Enlisting the aid of a Japanese immigrant, they form the first Jewish sumo wrestling club in the Holy Land.

When it comes to the festival’s social justice theme, July 26 might very well be the standout day. New York–based Jewish Funds for Justice, an advocacy group that does a lot of work in the Bay Area with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, is hosting a brunch in the Mission District and then a panel discussion at the Castro Theatre.

The discussion follows the 2 p.m. showing of “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” and before the 5:05 p.m. showing of “The Yes Men Fix the World.” The latter film is by and about eco-pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, whose antics of exposing corporate greed and environmental degradation were already featured in the 2003 film “The Yes Men.” Bichlbaum and the Kunstler sisters will be part of the panel, which will also include lawyers and Jewish leaders working for social justice and change. The aim is to explore the intersection of Judaism and social justice, Stein said.

But the festival is far broader than that one theme.

“We aren’t programming simply for the relevance of a topic or the urgency of an issue a film might address,” Stein said. “We start with the quality of the film. We are trying to get the best films. We are a film festival.”

In other words, the emphasis is on “film.” Then again, don’t forget the “festival” part, including the opening and closing night parties.

After all, said program director Nancy Fishman, even though it has already been held 28 times, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is “still my favorite Jewish holiday.”

For a complete schedule of San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screenings and events, visit www.jweekly.com/sfjff

J. staff writer Dan Pine contributed to this report.

cover photo   |   courtesy of the san francisco jewish film festival


Yoo-hoo: Documentary recalls TV icon Molly Goldberg

dan pine   |   staff writer

Before “Seinfeld,” before “I Love Lucy,” there was “The Goldbergs,” TV’s first comedy hit. And it was as Jewish as “Leave it to Beaver” was not.

Though largely forgotten from its run on U.S. television between 1949 and 1956, “The Goldbergs” established many sitcom staples taken for granted today: the catch phrase, regular sets and the TV comedy superstar. In this case, the star was Gertrude Berg as her TV alter ego, Molly Goldberg.

And her catch phrase: “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Bloom.”

Fascinated by this forgotten Jewish icon, filmmaker Aviva Kempner decided to make “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” a documentary that chronicles Berg’s life and work.

Gertrude Berg in “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”. photo/courtesy of the sfjff

“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” makes its California premiere July 28 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Kempner, 62, will attend the screening at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and accept the festival’s Freedom of Expression award for her body of work.

“She’s so under-known about her pioneering accomplishments,” says Kempner of Berg, who wrote, produced and starred in the show, which, for a while in the 1930s, aired daily on radio. “Writing 12,000 scripts, creating the first domestic sitcom — it was the progenitor of ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

Berg’s character, Molly, was famous for leaning out her apartment window in the Bronx and chatting with the neighbors. The ultimate Jewish mother, she would slip in hilarious malapropisms — appropriate for an immigrant — and was always ready with a life lesson or some fresh baked bread.

But Berg was not Molly. She was a Park Avenue patrician with a talent for theater. She got her start in 1929 with a local radio show, “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” for which she created the character of Molly.

Kempner’s 90-minute documentary features interviews with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Norman Lear, Ed Asner and others, all ruminating on the influence of Berg and her alter ego.

“The amazing thing is a woman could accomplish so much at a time of the greatest domestic anti-Semitism,” Kempner says of Berg. “She had the most positive Jewish mother figure and an overtly Jewish family.”

Berg created the radio program in the late 1920s and it began as a weekly, 15-minute program. After two years, it went daily, and in 1936, its name was shortened to “The Goldbergs.” It moved to television in 1949, first on CBS and then on NBC, where it was eventually renamed “Molly.”

It wound up on the sinking DuMont network in 1954 and made one last gasp in syndication in 1956.

The show made Berg one of the most famous women in the United States. She won the first Emmy ever awarded for best actress, in 1950, and was on her way to iconic status, when fate — and the Red Scare — intervened.

Her co-star, Phil Loeb, was caught up in the McCarthy-era effort to root out Communist sympathizers. The resulting trauma sidelined the show for nearly two years, and by the time Berg was ready to return to work, a red-haired comedienne named Lucille Ball had taken over at CBS.

Though Berg continued working until her death in 1966 — she won a Tony in 1959 for her performance in “A Majority of One” — her career never fully recovered.

Through Molly, Berg voiced her opinions on a wide range of subjects, from women’s rights to the Holocaust, and also created a world in which a lower–middle class Jewish experience was celebrated. Prof-essor Glenn Smith Jr., the author of a book about Berg, will participate in a Q&A and a panel discussion during the festival.

The Q&A will occur after a July 28 screening of four episodes of “The Goldbergs” at the Castro Theatre at 3:30 p.m. The panel discussion will occur a few hours later, after a 6:30 p.m. screening of “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”

Kempner has only vague memories of Berg’s presence on television. Born in Berlin in 1946, she moved to the United States in 1950, her father having been a U.S. Army liberator, her mother a Holocaust survivor.

She has gone on to make films about, as she calls them, “under-known Jewish heroes.” Her subjects have included Jewish partisans of World War II and baseball slugger Hang Greenberg. “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” which played in the SFJFF in 1999, received a Peabody Award, won various critics awards and ended up in theatrical release.

A Guggenheim fellow, Kempner also launched a Jewish film festival in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Now she returns to San Francisco to accept an award and show her latest film about an unsung Jewish hero.

“After 30 years of making these films, it seems like such a homecoming,” she says of her Freedom of Expression Award. “I’m humbled.

“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” screens 6:30 p.m. July 28 at the Castro Theatre, S.F., and will be followed by a panel discussion. Other showings: 12 p.m. Aug. 1 at Roda Theatre, Berkeley; 3 p.m. Aug. 2 at CineArts at Palo Alto Square; and 2 p.m. Aug. 8 at Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. Opens in wide release Aug. 7 at Opera Plaza Cinema, S.F., and Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley.

Four episodes of “The Goldbergs” TV show will screen 3:30 p.m. July 28 at the Castro Theatre; 12:30 p.m. Aug. 2 at CineArts at Palo Alto Square; and 2 p.m. Aug. 4 at Roda Theatre, Berkeley. Tickets and information: www.sfjff.org.




Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.