Unflinching documentarian to receive Freedom of Expression Award

One of the highest compliments to Alan Berliner’s skills is that no one has ever described his revealing personal documentaries as “home movies.”

From “Intimate Stranger” (1991), a fascinating family portrait centered around his maternal grandfather, to “First Cousin Once Removed,” his incisive new ode to the memory-robbed final years of a beloved poet and mentor, the New York filmmaker’s meticulously crafted portraits of American Jews are also brilliant evocations of universal experiences.

Berliner’s documentaries are chock-a-block with love, disappointment, tough decisions, failed relationships, unambiguous contributions and compassion. Humor and irony abound, especially in his 1996 interview/boxing match with his father, “Nobody’s Business.”

Alan Berliner

Berliner will receive the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s annual Freedom of Expression Award before a screening of “First Cousin Once Removed” on July 29 at the Castro Theatre. The film is about his relationship with his mother’s cousin, poet Edwin Honig.

“Because I travel around the world with my films, I often feel like an emissary for Judaism,” Berliner said recently by phone from his Lower Manhattan studio. “I’m not an exemplary Jewish filmmaker, but my films are Jewish in subtext and by innuendo. My father doesn’t talk much about religion in ‘Nobody’s Business’ but he couldn’t be anything but Jewish. I’ve received more than one email [over the years] that said, ‘Your film made me want to be Jewish.’ ”

So much for the old fear that exposing conflicts within the Jewish community — or worse yet, the family — to the general public is bad for the Jews. Berliner’s films, all of which have aired on PBS or HBO, have contributed to a wider appreciation of Jews as part of the fabric of America.

The 2012 film “First Cousin Once Removed,” which received the top prize at last winter’s prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, is the most demanding of Berliner’s trio of films about his family because of its unflinching look at a man of letters (and words) overtaken by Alzheimer’s.

“You could say it’s raw and honest, but ‘First Cousin Once Removed’ especially is a labor of love,” Berliner said. “I’m daring to show the love, daring to go where the love and the care allows me to go. If that’s Jewishness, OK, capital J. Because I’m not in someone else’s family universe. I’m not a visitor in someone else’s house here. I’m inside the culture of my family.”

That dynamic allows for ready identification by Jewish audiences with the people in Berliner’s films. From the filmmaker’s standpoint, the territory is fraught with a certain freedom, and enormous responsibility.

“Each film reflects my comfort level, and the culture of intimacy and the culture of communication and the culture of caring and investigation,” Berliner explained. “I’m investigating the ethos of my family. And an important part of that, by implication, is its Jewishness. How being Jewish has created the possibility for these characters to exist, and the lines of communication. And that gives me the courage and the confidence and the strength to make these kinds of investigations regardless of where they go.”

An obsessive editor, Berliner started out making experimental nonfiction shorts in the mid-1970s. His first long-form work, “The Family Album” (1986), constructed a birth-to-death collage of lives out of old home movies and audio interviews. He made the leap to turning the camera on himself in “The Sweetest Sound” (2001), which dealt with names and identity, and “Wide Awake” (2007), in which he catalogs and confronts his lifelong insomnia.

“My whole artistic life has been dedicated to trying to find extraordinary opportunities to get to the bottom of things, to approach the essence of human fragility.”

That might sound clinical, and perhaps depressing, to someone who’s never seen a Berliner film. To the contrary, his wonderfully artistic documentaries encompass life and human relationships in all their facets.

“If there’s another imperative that guides me more than anything, it’s the pursuit of irony,” Berliner mused. “I thought I was making a film about Alzheimer’s and memory loss, but I was making a film about a man who has a lot to forget. It’s really about the importance of forgetting.

“I think there’s something Jewish about that,” Berliner said. “It’s not unlike a midrash: You take something and you go over it a thousand times trying to get to the bottom of something that has no end. The conundrums and paradoxes only make it richer.”


Freedom of Expression Award presentation, 6:25 p.m. July 29 at the Castro in S.F. Followed by screening of “First Cousin Once Removed.” Other screenings: 12 p.m. Aug. 3 at the California in Berkeley, 12 p.m. Aug. 4 at the CinéArts in Palo Alto, 2 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. (Unrated, 78 minutes)

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.