Jewish Film Fest Spotlights Contributions to the Arts

By Sura Wood

Three films stand out as SFJFF looks at Hollywood and the arts.

At this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival several stand-out offerings focus on Jewish contributions to the arts and show business. Among them is “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” Rob Garver’s profile of the influential and polarizing film critic. Born on a Petaluma chicken farm to Polish-Jewish parents, Kael was a formidable figure known for her uncompromising, contrarian opinions, not just of particular films but also of the culture that produced them. She got her start at KPFA in Berkeley, broadcasting reviews and programming art house repertory at the Berkeley Cinema Guild Theater from 1955 to 1960. Her high-profile, 24-year gig as the the New Yorker’s film critic was followed by a stint as a best-selling author of books on movies. Garver’s documentary includes clips, home movies and observations from writer/director Paul Schrader, fellow critic Molly Haskell and the Kael disciples nicknamed the “Paulettes.”

Hungarian émigré and prolific film director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” 1942), is the subject of Tamás Topolánszky’s “Curtiz,” a fictionalized portrait of the filmmaker’s life. It’s particularly adept at capturing the troubled creation of “Casablanca.” Though the film won Curtiz a Best Director Oscar, the production was plagued by behind-the-scenes conflicts and impacted by the Curtiz’s efforts to save his European relatives from the Nazis. He succeeded in bringing his mother to the U.S. but was unable to do the same for his sister and her family, who were deported to Auschwitz. Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller conducts an on-stage interview with Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode at the Castro Theatre screening.

James Freedman’s documentary “Carl Laemmle” tells the remarkable story of a German Jewish immigrant who was both a humanitarian and a studio mogul who got in on the ground floor of the film industry. He founded Universal Pictures in 1912, which became known for its hit movies “Frankenstein,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Dracula,” in addition to launching the careers of Walt Disney, William Wyler, John Ford and Lois Weber, one of the many women directors Laemmle hired. After selling the company in 1936, Laemmle embarked on a quest that rivaled the plot of a Hollywood thriller; he overcame the resistance of the U.S. State Department to rescue more than 300 Jewish families from the Holocaust by sponsoring their emigration from Nazi Germany to the United States.

In addition to screening 65 films over a nearly three-week run, the festival includes special programs such as “Take Action Day,” a lineup of documentaries followed by discussions with social justice filmmakers, and “HerStory,” a conversation about feminism and film criticism.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 18-August 4

Castro Theatre, San Francisco; CineArts Theatre, Palo Alto; Rafael Film Center; Albany Twin Theaters.