“An Act of Defiance” is a South African thriller about the Jewish attorney who defended Nelson Mandela during the 1963 Rivonia Trial.
“An Act of Defiance” is a South African thriller about the Jewish attorney who defended Nelson Mandela during the 1963 Rivonia Trial.

2018 East Bay Jewish film festival focus: #StandUp to injustice

Film festivals celebrate the intersection of art and entertainment. The East Bay International Jewish Film Festival gives equal weight to a third element: the values of a civilized society.

“Certain films embody and embrace the values that we want to share with the community and that we believe in,” said Riva Gambert, longtime director of the once-modest festival that is now just two years shy of its 25th anniversary.

Themes such as justice, civic engagement, cross-cultural connection and empathy for “the other” wend through the lineup of more than 40 films, starting with the opening night documentary “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” on March 1 at the Orinda Theater. The festival will continue through March 12 at the Century 16 in Pleasant Hill before wrapping at the Vine Cinema and Alehouse in Livermore March 18.

The entire slate on March 11 falls under the hashtag and rallying cry #StandUp, with all five films exploring the imperative of taking personal action in the face of blatant injustice.

The curtain-raiser is Reginald Hudlin’s unjustly overlooked 2017 film “Marshall,” which stars Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”) as NCAA lawyer Thurgood Marshall — decades before he ascended to the Supreme Court — defending a black chauffeur in Connecticut with the help of reluctant, inexperienced attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad).

Other films in the lineup are the Austrian coming-of-age drama “Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs,” set in the 1960s, and the documentaries “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” which revisits the 1936 Games in Hitler’s Germany, and “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” the 2016 portrait of the prime-time television pioneer. (“Lear” filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady directed the Netflix doc “One of Us,” which follows three individuals who have chosen to leave their Hasidic culture.)

The day of #StandUp concludes with the Golden Globe-winning “In the Fade,” Fatih Akin’s intimate study of a German woman’s pursuit of justice and revenge in the wake of a neo-Nazi attack. The film was Germany’s official submission for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards, and Diane Kruger’s performance, for which she won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival last year, provokes difficult questions about the rule of law, the rights of victims and the nature of modern civilized societies.

“The lack of civility in our society has increased,” Gambert says. “I may not like a certain opinion that someone espouses, but a lot of people don’t understand what freedom of speech should be. It’s not [just] freedom of your speech. We want to encourage civility, and work against marginalizing someone.”

Gambert says the #StandUp theme was inspired by a talk by American Israeli professor Amos Guiora commemorating Kristallnacht at the Under One Tent book and arts festival last November. A former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces whose parents both had harrowing, life-threatening experiences in the Holocaust, Guiora drew some of his material from his book, “The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust.”

“We want to also encourage people not to be a bystander when they encounter bullying or acts of prejudice,” Gambert says.

The East Bay Jewish film festival has a history of showing movies in which non-Jewish characters demonstrate personal responsibility. “We’ve often shown a film that doesn’t have Jewish characters because we feel a Jewish film festival should embrace films that support Jewish values,” she says. “Of course, one Jewish value is standing up for others.”

The Australian drama “Jasper Jones,” showing on March 4 in Pleasant Hill, is in the vein of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Gambert says. A murder in 1969 awakens the young protagonist to the shocking depth of anti-Aboriginal sentiment in his small, sleepy town.

“If you recognize that [some] people are ‘the other’ in some people’s minds, by opening their minds to the pain of marginalization you’re also fighting anti-Semitism,” Gambert says. “You increase empathy in general.”

The effective way to achieve that result, Gambert believes, is not through polemics or finger-wagging after-school specials.

“I don’t like films that lecture,” she says. “They’re not as powerful as a narrative that’s emotionally engaging.”

The festival’s 23rd annual lineup is rife with dilemma-driven sagas from Europe, but there is a lighter side, as well, such as the farcical “Let Yourself Go.” The 2017 Italian comedy centers on an older Jewish psychoanalyst (Toni Servillo) who pines for his ex-wife and, perhaps, for the personal trainer he hires to help him lose weight.

Then there’s the German romantic comedy “Family Commitments,” which concocts various obstacles to the happiness of a Jewish guy and a Muslim guy. “Bye Bye Germany” explores postwar identity, ambition and reinvention through the fast-talking exploits of a Jewish salesman in Frankfurt.

Dramas from abroad include “An Act of Defiance,” a crackling South African thriller that revisits Jewish attorney Bram Fischer’s gutsy defense of Nelson Mandela during the 1963 Rivonia Trial. Real-life events also propel “Murder in Polna,” which concerns a sociologist’s intervention in the framing of a Jew for the titular crime in a Czech village in 1899.

Justice is not served in “Riphagen,” a provocative Dutch saga of a man who exploited desperate Jews during the Nazi occupation. On the other side, “Across the Waters” is a Danish parable of the successful wartime efforts to ferry Jews to Sweden and out of the reach of the Nazis.

The festival naturally boasts a strong contingent of movies from Israel. A late addition to the program, the hit comedy “Maktub,” is about a pair of lowlife crooks transformed into do-gooders who covertly fulfill the desperate prayers written on notes and slipped into the crevices of the Western Wall.

“We’re very careful with our comedies, wherever they’re from, because comedies are sometimes an acquired taste,” Gambert says. “What is funny in one culture does not evoke laughter in another. Or the use of humor in that culture is not understood [outside of it].”

The festival’s Israel focus provides a sense of the remarkable breadth and quality of the current Israeli cinema. Ori Sivan’s “Harmonia,” which played at several local festivals last year, is an update of the biblical Hagar story to a present-day orchestra hall, while “In Between,” another returning favorite, imagines the romantic, familial, political and social challenges of three modern Palestinian women sharing a Tel Aviv flat.

“A Quiet Heart” is a minimalist story of an isolated young woman dealing with unwanted male attention and religious suspicion, while the heroine of Rama Burshtein’s “The Wedding Plan” seeks more male attention — in the form of a loving fiancé — on a tight deadline.

The festival includes the East Bay premiere of “Wounded Land,” which won director Erez Tadmor an Israeli Oscar for best director in 2015; the harrowing film explores the tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs in the wake of a terrorist attack. The documentary “Muhi: Generally Temporary” depicts the bond between a Palestinian boy and his grandfather confined to an Israeli hospital.

The festival also includes one free screening, “Pawn Sacrifice,” at 3 p.m. March 10 at the Century 16 in Pleasant Hill. The 2014 drama directed by Edward Zwick is about the 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland, with Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) facing off against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Admission is on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Many of the themes of this year’s festival are encapsulated in a single figure: the electrifying Sammy Davis Jr. Presented by the festival as a “sneak preview” ahead of its theatrical release and TV broadcast later this year, “I’ve Gotta Be Me” recalls a complicated figure who was compelled to #StandUp before hashtags were even invented.

Black and Jewish, Davis was a prime target for bigots. He epitomized “the other,” at least until one saw him and was instantly touched by his talent and warmth. At the same time, Davis didn’t hesitate to put his career at risk by using the limelight to champion civil rights.

The film is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. March 1 in Orinda, 12:10 p.m. March 6 in Pleasant Hill and 7:30 p.m. March 15 in Livermore.

East Bay International Jewish Film Festival opens March 1 at Orinda Theater and continues March 3-12 at Century 16 Pleasant Hill, and March 15 and 18 at Vine Cinema and Alehouse, Livermore. $10 for matinees, $13 for screenings after 2 p.m. Order tickets by phone at (925) 240-3053. For schedule and other details, visit eastbayjewishfilm.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.