Film Fest Explores Varied Facets of Jewish Life

by Sura Wood

The 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival offers 67 features, documentaries, shorts and more.

This year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival—its 38th—showcases a wide swath of Jewish cinema in its 67 features, documentaries, shorts and a special sidebar on the feminist film movement that spotlights women in front of and behind the camera. Topics include a Bay Area filmmaker’s quest to reclaim artworks that had belonged to her great-grandfather and disappeared after he was deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Majdanek concentration camp, where he died; the saga of two enterprising German Jewish refugees who launched the prestigious jazz label Blue Note Records; and documentaries about Sammy Davis, Jr., Kurt Waldheim and Gilda Radner.

Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at the age of 42, was one of the funniest and most loveable comedians of her generation. A Saturday Night Live alumna, she was the first cast member producer Lorne Michaels chose for his nascent show. Lisa D’Apolito’s affectionate documentary “Love, Gilda,” which opens the festival, will evoke nostalgia in some viewers while introducing Radner’s comedic gifts and memorable characters to others. D’Apolito charts Radner’s road to success, drawing on home movies of her affluent Detroit childhood as well as diary entries, some of which are read aloud, that offer insight into the impact of her father’s death and her eating disorders, plus clips from her on-air sketches. Former colleagues and those she inspired—Amy Poehler, Laraine Newman and Martin Short, among others—share memories and anecdotes from different stages of her career.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus’ “The Fourth Estate” is a four-chapter, backstage series that examines the inner workings of the New York Times newsroom. It follows harried journalists trying to keep up during the tumultuous first year of the Trump administration, which has derided and undermined the media. “During the campaign, we didn’t have our finger on the pulse of the country and never found it,” admits Times executive editor Dean Baquet. “We’re now facing a giant story.” The film captures the relentless pressure and competition within the paper’s ranks, as well as with TheWashington Post and other news outlets, to break those stories, while showing how reporters and editors analyze the latest developments and hash out priorities. “It’s a lot of perpetual motion,” observes White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who covered Trump for 20 years before joining the paper in 2015. “Trump was a quote you tried to get because he’d always juice up a story.” The festival screening of the first installment, which concentrates on Trump’s first 100 days in office, is followed by an onstage conversation with Garbus.

The fictional protagonist of
“Budapest Noir” is a very different breed of newspaperman. An adaptation of the 2008 Hungarian best-seller by Vilmos Kondor, Eva Gardos’ moody thriller, set in 1930s Hungary on the precipice of fascism, revolves around a cynical crime reporter investigating the death of a mysterious woman. His crusade to uncover her identity takes him on a journey through the seedy world of brothels, smoke-filled clubs and underworld haunts. The city’s Old World ambience is integral to a narrative of murder, deceit, political intrigue and a journalist driven by a quest for a front page story. “I love films that use a detective story to relate history,” notes Noir City founder Eddie Muller, who will introduce the film and conduct an onstage Q&A with Gardos. “This is a chance for fans of hard-boiled American fiction to see the form applied to a culture on the other side of the world and, hopefully, realize how much we now have in common with the Hungary of 1937.”

Thirty years ago, Ruth
Beckermann, the Austrian director of “The Waldheim Waltz,” was an activist on the streets of Vienna, portable video camera in hand, protesting the presidential candidacy of former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. Shortly before the vote, the World Jewish Congress released information that exposed Waldheim’s involvement in the 1942 Nazi deportation of 56,000 Jews from Greece and the massacre of Yugoslavian fighters. Waldheim won; some believe that his steadfast denial of responsibility for wartime atrocities and his lies about his military record reflected a broader refusal among the Austrian people to come to terms with their culpability in Nazi war crimes. After his victory, Beckermann put away her black and white footage of virulent confrontations between protestors and anti-Semitic Waldheim supporters in the weeks prior to his election. “It was shocking to hear those people in the streets,” recalls Beckermann, who says the Waldheim affair was the most important event in post-war Austria. “To remember is not enough,” she cautions. “Today they shout on social media.” But it was revisiting her old material in 2013 with a group of young people, coupled with the rise of right-wing populist leaders like Austria’s current vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, and the resurgence of “all the ugly emotions in Europe, including anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Islamism,” that prompted her to make this film, a personal essay featuring her 1986 footage intercut with newsreels and television coverage from the period.

“Sammy lived for the spotlight 24/7 and always needed an audience to feel alive,” relates filmmaker Sam Pollard, whose new American Masters documentary, “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” reveals just how cruel the offstage world could be for the famous impressionist, actor and song-and-dance man who was a member of Frank Sinatra’s rat pack. “I see the racism he faced as the most important part of the story,” Pollard adds. In the 1950s, Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn reportedly ordered Davis to break off his relationship with Kim Novak, the love of his life, and immediately marry a black woman. Then, in 1960, Davis received death threats after wedding Swedish actress May Britt; the interracial marriage led President John F. Kennedy, whom Davis had supported, to disinvite the couple to the inauguration festivities, which deeply wounded Davis. The film is filled with performance footage, audio recordings Davis made in preparation for his autobiography, archival photos, excerpts from his remarkably frank, ubiquitous on-camera interviews, and commentary by Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Lewis. Despite the outward trappings of success, says Pollard, Davis was dogged by insecurity. “Even with all his ability, Sammy was a very conflicted human being. I don’t think folks during his time recognized how talented he was but, looking back,
he truly was a trailblazer.”

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 19 → August 5 621-0523