Arts: Golden Menorahs

San Francisco Jewish Film Fest comes to Marin

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‘Fanny’s Journey,’ starring the young Léonie Souchaud, is one of 14 films from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival that will screen in Marin this weekend. Photo by Andrea Salles.

By Mal Karman

There aren’t many film festivals that have made it to 37 years and, presuming that wisdom really does come with age, we can assure you that the folks at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival—the world’s oldest and largest of its kind—know what they’re doing.

We Marinites don’t even have to go to the festival—which has been running in San Francisco since July 20—because it comes to us on Friday, August 4, through Sunday, Aug. 6 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. So those who turn ghost-white at the prospect of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a weekend evening need not even invest in a bottle of Maalox.  

With that in mind, we’re set to direct you to the following films that won over our version of the Academy Awards—the Golden Menorahs. For those of us who envision a peaceful two-state solution in the Middle East, check in on The 90 Minute War, a clever mockumentary that satirizes the intractability of both sides at the negotiating table. Somewhere off in the future, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have given up talking and agree to settle their differences with one single soccer match. Winner takes all. The loser packs up and moves on. But be aware that the scenes that make us laugh in this dark satire are the same ones that break our hearts in real life; Aug. 5, 12:05pm.

A modern retelling of the biblical story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar unfolds in Harmonia, with Abraham as the conductor of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra, Sarah as the first harp and Hagar as the third French horn. Music plays beneath each character in such a way that it describes who they are and what they feel. For example, the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is indicative of Hagar’s solemn nature.

There is a tension that builds between Abraham and Hagar that is puzzling and evocative of something dark. We almost expect that—with no warning and without reason—he is capable of exploding and slapping her. But when it seems that Sarah cannot have children, she suggests to Abraham that he take Hagar to conceive a child, eventually named Ismail. We thought we knew the ending to this piece, given its biblical roots, but we were wrong and that’s what makes Harmonia special; Aug.6, noon.

Internationally known director Andrei Konchalovsky’s brutal World War II drama of how people deceived themselves and others under Nazi rule and the consequences they paid for their deception forms the heart and bones of Paradise. Although it takes some time to get there, the film focuses on the unlikely resurrection of a fleeting relationship between a countess (now a concentration camp inmate for harboring two Jewish children) and an uber-proud German soldier (now an SS officer running the camp). While the two come together, the contrast between Nazi oppressor and victim is unnervingly loud, resulting in each of them finding their way to a personal paradise—or is it a private hell? Aug. 4, 3:50pm.

Another gut-wrenching drama comes from writer/director Sam Garbarski whose Bye Bye Germany focuses on the immediate aftermath of the war and how David Berman, a Nazi concentration camp inmate, played with adept slipperiness by Moritz Bleibtreu (Manni in Run Lola Run), happened to obtain so many privileges for himself. As a result, he can’t get a license to peddle French linens and survive. While saddled with this horribly translated title, which inevitably evokes images of Jesse Pearson and Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie, the film (based mostly on co-screenwriter Michel Bergmann’s debut novel The Traveling Salesmen, inspired by his own family history), evokes the reality of displaced people struggling to find a home, not far from the images we see today on the nightly news. In this case, however, Berman has some sneaky tricks up his somehow-ironed sleeve; Aug. 6, 6:20pm.

We had little hope that Bombshell would be more than just another history of a once-famous actress whose star came and went, but this fascinating documentary surpassed our hopes, peeling off the layers (and we don’t mean clothing) of who Hedy Lamarr really was. “Actress” may actually have been at the bottom of Lamarr’s list. Along with George Antheil, she invented spread spectrum technology, a system to manipulate radio frequencies at irregular intervals that would prevent messages from being intercepted by Germany and its allies. It could also be used to override German attempts to jam signals directing torpedoes at their U-boats.

In 1942, the Navy soundly rejected Antheil and Lamarr’s patented invention, but adopted it 20 years later during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lamarr’s son, Anthony Loder, says that his mother would have gladly given up Hollywood to further a career as an inventor. She was known in the ’40s as the most beautiful woman in the world, but Loder says, “She wanted to do something important.” Aug. 6, 4:15pm.

In almost all of the screenings on the full program, it would be hard to find a single (sour) pickle of a movie. Go for yourself and you’ll see what we mean.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Aug. 4-6, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-1222; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

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