Documentaries get lions share of East Bay film festival

Organizers of this year’s East Bay International Jewish Film Festival think moviegoers are ready for an ample diet of documentaries. That’s why they’ve loaded the lineup with a record 18 documentaries — in addition to 23 other features.

The 18th annual festival will run March 9-14 at the CinéArts in Pleasant Hill, March 10 and 14 at the Vine Cinema and Alehouse in Livermore and March 15-17 at the Orinda Theatre. True to its international scope, the festival includes films from Germany, France, Australia, Holland, Peru, Russia and, of course, Israel.

Sima Toledano in her Israeli army uniform

One of this year’s documentaries is “Yes, Miss Commander!” Not only is the 96-minute film getting a curtain call after proving to be a festival favorite in 2010, but this time around, one of the women featured in the film, Sima Toledano, will be a guest speaker after the screening

(4:15 p.m. March 10 in Pleasant Hill).

The 2009 film, in Hebrew with English subtitles, goes inside an Israeli army boot camp for juvenile delinquents who might otherwise fall through the cracks of society. One twist: All of the commanders and drill sergeants on the Israel Defense Forces base are women.

Toledano, currently on staff at San Francisco Hillel as the center’s Israeli emissary, was one of those commanders.

“It’s a beautiful place,” Toledano says, referring to the former military base in the northern Galilee. “But the people in it are people having difficulty adjusting. If we didn’t have it, these kids wouldn’t have an opportunity to serve in the army. And because the IDF is such a basic obligation in Israeli society, people would ask why [they did not serve] and not hire them.”

Another featured documentary is “Hava Nagila,” which recounts with levity and insight the fascinating history of the most popular Jewish wedding song ever. A crowd pleaser wherever it has played — including opening night and three additional showings in the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — the film is finally making it to big screen in the East Bay.

Other documentaries cover an array of topics. An official selection at last year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, “Numbered” details the sordid backstory of the Third Reich’s program of tattooing the arms of Jewish and other prisoners.

“The Flat,” winner of the 2011 Israeli Ophir award for best documentary, is a haunting memoir from Israeli filmmaker Amnon Goldfinger, who comes to learn that his grandparents had been close friends with a Nazi officer, even after the Holocaust.

“Besa: The Promise” follows photographer Norman Guttman as he uncovers a story of heroism during the Holocaust, when scores of Albanian Muslims hid and protected their Jewish neighbors from Nazi roundups.

Not all the documentaries are so gritty. The 2012 film “Koch” recounts the career of three-time New York City Mayor Ed Koch. And the Israeli documentary “Dolphin Boy,” a jury prize winner at the 2011 Woodstock Film Festival, tells the heartwarming story of a disabled Israeli Arab boy who finds healing thanks to therapy dolphins near Eilat.

Though this festival tends to avoid themes, it’s hard to miss the preponderance of films about music this year.

In the rock and pop realm, “a.k.a. Doc Pomus” tells the story of the prolific Brooklyn-born songwriter Doc Pomus (“Save the Last Dance for Me”), while “Under African Skies” dissects Paul Simon’s controversial connection to South Africa and its music. And in “Orchestra of Exiles,” maestros such as Zubin Mehta and Itzhak Perlman help recount the history of the Israel Philharmonic, an ensemble formed by refugees from Hitler’s Europe.

There are plenty of dramas and comedies, as well.

For the March 9 opening night in Pleasant Hill, the festival serves up the Bay Area premiere of “God’s Neighbors” (see accompanying review) and “Inheritance,” an acclaimed film from Israeli Arab director Hiam Abass that provides a fascinating window into Israeli Arab life while leaving out the typical political baggage.

“It’s a human story we don’t ordinarily get,” says Riva Gambert, the festival’s director. “It’s not about war and conflict. It’s about human beings who have secrets.”

Every film in the festival screens only once, with the exception of the 2011 fanciful Russian coming-of-age drama “My Dad is Baryshnikov” (March 10 in Livermore and March 17 in Orinda). Gambert says advance ticket sales are brisk, and corporate sponsorship of the festival has increased. “They realize they can make a difference,” she says of the sponsors, “and maintain cultural events at a time of economic challenge.”

It adds up to a fine selection of films, enthusiastic presenters and, if all goes well, 42 audiences eager for cinematic excellence.

 

The East Bay International Jewish Film Festival runs March 9-17. For listings through March 14, see calendar on page 22. For details about films, venues and tickets, visit www.eastbayjewishfilm.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.