"Black Flowers" introduces audiences to five Israeli artists who were children during the Holocaust. (Photo/Courtesy Tammy Federman)
"Black Flowers" introduces audiences to five Israeli artists who were children during the Holocaust. (Photo/Courtesy Tammy Federman)

Sonoma Israeli Film Festival spotlights healing power of art

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One of the enduring human mysteries is where art comes from. There are as many answers as there are artists, which helps explain the fascination with movies about the inspirations and lives of artists.

Three new documentaries from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem explore several such artistic journeys, each fraught with various struggles and obstacles. They will be shown in the seventh annual JCC Sonoma County Israeli Film Festival, which will stream online from April 26 through May 17, with four in-person screenings at the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol.

“Black Flowers,” one of the documentaries, premiered at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. It’s directed by Tammy Federman, who immersed herself in various art forms as a child, and was sufficiently accomplished that she spent her mandatory army service in the entertainment corps singing for the troops. When her sister, the multidisciplinary artist Shelly Federman, died and left three decades of footage — including video diaries spanning her cancer diagnosis to her final days — Federman segued to filmmaking to craft the 2018 documentary “Cellfish” from the assembled material.

“Black Flowers” is her life-affirming follow-up. It also explores the intersection of creativity and trauma while fulfilling Federman’s longtime goal of working with Holocaust survivors. The 50-minute film (in English and Hebrew with English subtitles) introduces us to five Israelis who were children during the Holocaust: sculptor Saadya Bahat, painters Jenny Rozenstein and Ruthi Goren, embroiderer Esther Goldman and multidisciplinary artist Tommy Brayer.

Federman will participate in a live Zoom conversation at 12 p.m. on May 5 that is open to all virtual and in-person ticket holders.

Like all seven films in the lineup, “Black Flowers” will be available to view online at any time during the festival (viewers will have 72 hours to complete their viewing after pressing “play”). In addition, it will screen May 3 at the Rialto Cinemas as part of a double feature with Yuval Hamieri and Michal Vaknin’s “That Orchestra with the Broken Instruments.”

Winners of a nonfiction jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival for a unique 9-minute film (check it out via the New York Times), Hamieri and Vaknin have now crafted a 79-minute film that covers four days of rehearsal by more than 100 musicians playing found and damaged instruments. The musicians are from various backgrounds and corners of Jerusalem, and the film (in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles) culminates with a performance at the Mekudeshet Festival in Jerusalem in 2019.

Tom Cohen of the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra conducted the disparate group. The creative process, the concert and, for that matter, the film, are acts of healing that acknowledge the past but, crucially, look forward.

The third “artistic process” documentary, available for virtual viewing only, is Yair Kedar’s 55-minute “The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua,” a portrait of arguably Israel’s greatest living writer. The film (in Hebrew, English and Arabic with English subtitles) debuted to a packed house at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival that included former President Ruvi Rivlin, and was introduced by the minister of culture and sports.

In the film, Yehoshua, who turned 85 in December, is dealing with an illness and adjusting to being a widower. Yet he is able, with his accumulated wisdom, to hold on to the past while continuing to stride into the future.

For his part, Kedar is a prolific director and producer of documentaries who reached a new level in 2021. Along with “The Last Chapter,” he completed and released “The Fourth Window,” another complex study of another legendary Israeli writer, Amos Oz, who died in 2018 at age 79.

The program also features four tonally diverse narrative films, including the young-adult saga “The Raft,” whose adolescent protagonists sail to Cyprus for a pivotal soccer match, and the semi-sadistic romantic comedy “One More Story,” about a journalist who selfishly convinces a friend to date a different woman every day for a month.

The genial Ophir-nominated geriatric comedy “Greener Pastures,” centers on a septuagenarian who schemes to sell government-supplied medical marijuana to party-hearty twentysomethings. The short film “Give It Back!” depicts a 12-year-old American girl settling in at her new Israeli school.

The most poignant and wrenching films in the festival, though, are the three documentaries. These uncommon films don’t resolve every mystery of the creative process, or unlock the powerful alchemy to which artists have special access. They do, however, remind us of the necessity, and sacrifice, of artists.

JCC Sonoma County Israeli Film Festival

Online April 26 to May 17. In-person screenings at 3 p.m. on consecutive Tuesdays (April 26, May 3, 10, 17) at Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley Street, Sebastopol. $12-$15 single tickets, $50-$75 passes.

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.