Family Dynamics a Focus of Jewish Film Fest

by Jean Schiffman

Tension between traditional values and modernity, and the divisive influence of a controlling patriarchal figure frame festival films about family dynamics.

Among the 65 films from 15 different countries at this summer’s 36th annual Jewish Film Festival—the oldest and largest such festival in the world—are documentaries, narrative features, shorts and TV series from Israel that provide insight into a complex world. Executive director Lexi Leban of the Jewish Film Institute, which produces the festival, and program director Jay Rosenblatt agree that Israeli cinema is getting better and better; in the past 10 or 15 years, avows Rosenblatt, it has achieved world-class status, and submissions to the festival have increased. About 20 percent of this year’s films are from Israel.

Films about Israel can be divisive and polarizing for audiences, Rosenblatt acknowledges. In choosing the program, the festival aims to give voice to different points of view, to show films that are “complex, not simplistic [and] not only conflict films.”

As it happens, one such film is about Israel but not by an Israeli; it is local theater artist (and former artistic director of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre) Aaron Davidman’s “Wrestling Jerusalem,” based on his one-man play of the same name, which premiered in San Francisco in 2014. In the stage play, Davidman embodied the many different voices (increased to 30 in the film), points of view and opinions that he encountered on several trips to the much-disputed Holy Land, including a fervent, friendly Muslim; the son of Holocaust survivors whose own teenage son died in a bus bombing in Haifa; an Arab woman; a religious Jew who declares, “We’ve been running for thousands of years. We’re not running anymore”; a Jewish-American medical student and Hamas supporter who says, “I’m fighting for the underdog. Remember the Holocaust? Apparently not!” and so forth. The film version is very cinematic and innovative, says Rosenblatt.

When it comes to the festival’s Israeli-made films, the range is broad, from “On the Map,” Dani Menkin’s documentary about the 1976-77 championship Maccabi basketball team of Israel to two episodes of the TV series “False Flag,” a spy thriller written by Amit Cohen, who will appear at the festival. (Israel’s TV industry is booming, according to Leban. Included in the festival are three episodes of a new series, “The Writer,” by Sayed Kashua, loosely based on his own experiences as a Palestinian living in Israel; Kashua, who now lives in the United States, will appear in an onstage interview.)

Of particular interest are the explorations of family dynamics among the varied groups within that geographically small country. Certain themes are consistent: the tension between traditional values and modernity, and the divisive influence of a controlling patriarchal figure. (How fitting that Norman Lear, who produced the groundbreaking American TV sitcom “All in the Family,” is honored with this year’s Freedom of Expression Award; Peter Stein will interview him onstage.) “Definitely this intergenerational familial experience is a big thing this year,” says Leban. “Israel is a place where so many have come for various reasons . . . bringing their traditional cultures from the Arab world, from Africa [and elsewhere], and internally there are the religious communities as well. You feel these tensions.”

For example, in “Sand Storm,” the 2016 debut film by Elite Zexer, who lived among the Bedouin for 10 years, a family in a Bedouin village in the desert is fractured by two events: the father, Suliman, brings home a younger second wife; and university-student Layla, the oldest of his four daughters with his unhappy first wife, Jalila, is discovered to be in love with a boy from a different tribe. Despite a close bond with Layla—he encourages her to pursue education and teaches her to drive—Suliman immediately arranges a marriage for her with an undesirable older man and banishes Jalila when she objects. “There’s tension and pressure from the rest of the community to conform,” observes Leban. “How do families resist that?” A rare and nuanced look at this minority culture, “Sand Storm” won a top prize at Sundance. “Some of the things you see in that family mirror the scenes in the Shtisel family,” points out Leban—“their struggle to adapt to a changing world.”

She’s referring to the funny and melancholy TV series “Shtisel,” directed by Alon Zingman, which premiered in 2013; the festival is screening the first two episodes. The dysfunctional but close-knit Shtisel family, which speaks Yiddish at home, belongs to
an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect in Jerusalem. Patriarch Shulem, a long-bearded, domineering widower, lives with his twentysomething son who—much to Shulem’s disapproval—aspires to be an artist. When Shulem’s younger brother visits from his home in Belgium with his daughter—among other things, to find a husband for her—the two brothers squabble. Meanwhile, Shulem’s married daughter and her husband have problems of their own. As with “Sand Storm,” “Shtisel” depicts Israelis of a group “beyond the overly represented secular culture of Tel Aviv,” as one writer put it in the journal In Geveb. Says Rosenblatt, “This [very devout] family seems different from everyday people, but they’re dealing with the same issues of pain, love, grief and death.”

In contrast to “Sand Storm” in terms of how the younger generation responds to a controlling father figure is Michael Vinik’s 2015 narrative “Barash,” a coming-of-age story of a rebellious and vulnerable 17-year-old, Naama. In the secular but still tradition-bound Barash family, Naama is sullen at home, a charmer at school. When she falls for the new girl, a bleached-blonde, baby-faced lesbian, Naama’s world changes—it’s all cigarettes, drugs and sex now. As in “Sand Storm,” the Barash family is in crisis: Naama’s older sister has disappeared from her army post with an Arab lover. But unlike “Sand Storm’s” Layla, who is truly devoted to her father, Naama and her dictatorial, rage-aholic dad seem disconnected.

Similarly to “Shtisel,” Yuval Delshad’s semi-autobiographical “Baba Joon” (nominated for an Oscar in 2015) pits father against son. In this rural Sephardic family, three generations of Iranian immigrants (who speak in Farsi) live on the family turkey farm: old-world patriarch (Baba Joon), his hardworking son Yitzhak and Yitzhak’s gifted and rebellious adolescent son, Moti. When Yitzhak’s brother visits from America, Moti’s refusal to follow in his father’s footsteps comes to a climax. With brief moments of intimacy—in one scene, Moti and Yitzhak scrub each other’s backs in the bath; in another Moti and Baba sing a song about returning to beloved Isfahan—“Baba Joon” is a poignant look at one struggling family.

In yet another film about two brothers separated by continents, the documentary “Aida’s Secret” looks at Izak in Israel and Shepsel, who was born blind, in Canada. But in this affecting true story, the brothers, both in their 60s, never knew the other existed until recently. Their mother, the elusive and secretive Aida, sent Izak off to an adoptive family in Palestine after the war—the brothers were both born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp—and immigrated to Canada, giving Shepsel away to her husband. She kept in touch occasionally with Izak but not Shepsel. Meanwhile Shepsel grew up not far away from her, also in Canada, with his father, and was told nothing of his mother. Izak’s son, filmmaker Alon Schwarz, helped to uncover the long-held and devastating secrets (although some secrets ultimately went to the grave with Aida) and reunite his father and uncle; the scenes in which the two emotionally open brothers meet for the first time, and the scene in which Shepsel at last meets his mother, are deeply affecting. There must be others of their generation who are still unclear about what happened right after the war.

A sort of antidote to troubling family stories, irreverent Israeli filmmaker Gur Bentwich’s “The Bentwich Syndrome” is a light and charmingly comical documentary that includes animated versions of old family photos as it examines the legacy of the Bentwiches, from patriarch Herbert, Gur’s great grandfather—an Englishman and Zionist—on down. Herbert’s mishpocha lived variously in England and Palestine, all apparently following the family tradition of self-aggrandizement—a proud family with performance anxiety, according to Gur; he embarked on this project to find out what made his relatives tick. Unlike Herbert and the autocratic fathers in some of the other Israeli family films, Gur is a low-key modern dad; he’s accompanied on his documentary investigations not only by his filmmaker wife but also his two noisy small children, and he’s consistently funny and unflappable.

“Are you a settler?” is the question that documentarian Shimon Dota poses to various—well, settlers—right at the beginning of “The Settlers.” Oddly, his interviewees evade a direct answer. Some say they live on their forefathers’ land, some say God gave them the right to all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. Some say they’re owed the entire world. Not all are religious extremists: Some settle on the West Bank only because it’s cheaper to build a house there. Some who come are American Christians who believe Jews own this land. In one scene, a settler asks his children, “Where did Papa go?” “To fight Arabs!” “But you won’t tell anyone, right? And what will you do when you grow up?” “Fight Arabs!” This history of the settler movement, within the broader context of the creation of Israel—including historical footage and comments by settlers, rabbis and pundits from all viewpoints—is, says Rosenblatt, “kind of disturbing.” As it plunges into the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it casts a different light on the notion of “family.”

July 21 ? Aug. 7

Thick House

Castro Theatre, San Francisco, and theaters in Palo Alto, San Rafael, Berkeley and Oakland