Monday, July 20, 2009

Adam Hartzell: SF Jewish Film Festival Preview

Adam Hartzell writes on the 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival:

There's an oft-repeated story that Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement (otherwise known as Flight of the Conchords) were turned down for funding by New Zealand public television because their humor was "Too Wellington". That is, their humor would be missed by everyone outside of the nation's capital. (I've heard this story most often on Radio National New Zealand, their NPR equivalent, but here's a citation of someone else who cites the rumor.) Ironically, it took the U.S., a country that many argue enforces mediocrity by requiring entertainment to be constrained within the confines of what 'Middle America' would find interesting, to see that the world was way more Wellington than New Zealand public television ever realized.

The mistake made by that rumor of an ill-fated bureaucratic choice is that people will have trouble relating to difference. In this way, a mundane mainstream must be reached because too much fringe causes too much confusion. This is why we ended up with so many TV shows and films based in San Francisco where everyone is white and nobody is Gay. J Lo had to be a white wedding planner because everyone knows there ain't no Latinas in San Francisco. But there are media that show the lie to that argument, TV shows and films that demonstrate that people from diverse backgrounds can appreciate stories from experiences other than a white Protestant lens. TV shows from the very beginning of TV like The Goldbergs show the window-sized holes in these arguments.

If you are not now yelling inside your head 'Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!' after reading that reference, you are like me before seeing Aviva Kempner's documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. Kempner's documentary is screening at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (the 29th edition, held from July 23rd through August 10th this year) along with a special screening of a collection of episodes from The Goldbergs TV show. This is all part of Kempner receiving the festival's Freedom of Expression Award for her contribution to Jewish Cinema. I was unaware of Gertrude Berg's pioneering radio, TV, and stage-work and that The Goldbergs was considered the progenitor of the TV sitcom.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg challenges the belief that people can't relate to backgrounds different from their own by bringing past fans of the show, an African American and a Greek Orthodox American, who found the aspects of Jewish culture portrayed on The Goldbergs transferable to their own lives, their own families. As much as I enjoy this documentary, I do have peccadilloes about the use of stock images in the documentary that are disjointed enough from the narration that they throw me off it. For example, during one narration of a young adult Berg driving in a car with her father, the generic stock footage is of a man driving without a young female passenger in the seat next to him. Perhaps we are supposed to impose an image of Berg into the seat, but without any person in the actual seat, it distracted more than complemented the narration for me. A few seconds later we are meant to impose Berg walking alongside the car with images of no one walking along the side of the car (and too fast for someone to 'walk' along side at that). I know this can be seen as poetic license, asking the viewer to enter the film by filling up the stock image with an image of Berg, but it didn't work for me. Regardless of these moments where the documentary lost me, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is an otherwise engaging doc that reveals much for both those familiar with Berg's work and those previously ignorant like me.

Victoria Day (David Bezmozgis, Canada, 2009) may pose a similar challenge to folk theories espousing limitations on how much difference audiences, particularly U.S. audiences, can accept. English Canadian films are often discouraged from emphasizing their Canadian locality because such is believed to prohibit opportunities for distribution below the 49th parallel. To even name a film "Victoria Day" implies you've given up on your neighbors to the South. (Although intended to celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday in English-speaking Canada, Victoria Day has been appropriated in cultural practice to note the beginning of summer and, like many holidays, as an excuse to drink. Both appropriations are will utilized in this film.) But there is absolutely no reason why the trials of 16-year-old Ben Spektor can't resonate here in the U.S. Ben is played expertly by Mark Rendell, who will also be a lead character in Year of the Carnivore, the upcoming directorial debut of Sook-yin Lee from the CBC's Definitely Not the Opera. A begrudging effort to assist someone he despises leads him down a road of ambiguous responsibilities. Along the way, we are witness to thankfully non-clichéd portrayals of triads between Ben and his two friends and Ben and his Russian-émigré parents. This is a wonderfully subtle, impactful film.

Let me end where the SFJFF begins, with their opening film Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger (Cathy Randall, Australia, 2008). I missed an opportunity to see this film during my last trip to Melbourne when it was playing in the Camberwell suburb where I was staying.. And after watching (on DVD) this wonderful film in my apartment in the Richmond District (appropriately enough, a district of San Francisco believed to have been given its name from an Australian who felt it reminded him of his former Melbourne neighborhood of Richmond), I'm so grateful to SFJFF for giving me another chance to see it. The film follows an awkward teenage year of Esther Blueburger. Shunned for her odd behavior by the privileged pack at her private school, she finds herself embraced for such by the rebels at a public school she secretively attends. Interspersed with surreal moments of imagination, this is not an Améliesque romanticism of fantastic whimsy. (Mind you, I love Amélie. But too much romanticism, especially when imposed on youth, can pose problems. For a strong argument against emo-overshare, checkout Craig Shuftan's wonderful new book, and wonderfully titled, Hey Nietzche, Leave Them Kids Alone!, published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's publishing house. Tricia Rose's The Hip Hop Wars is a powerful companion book to Shuftan's since she presents an equally strong critique of romanticism's doppelganger, nihilism.) Esther, played strikingly well for a young debut by Danielle Catanzariti, battles against the cliques and confinements of teenage life. She eventually makes choices that result in her becoming that which she previously fought against, providing her an opportunity to take the very responsibilities she wished others would take. A slightly atypical coming-of-age film, I found myself embracing this gem from a country whose national cinema has been lacking in the eyes of my Australian friends. (Although everyone is raving about Aboriginal director Warwick Thornton's debut Samson and Delilah, so things could indeed be looking up down under.)

In fact, I found myself tremendously engaged with all three selections I screened prior to the beginning of SFJFF this Thursday. So if these three are any sign of what's on offer for the rest of the selections, this year's SFJFF should be the best I've ever attended.

Thanks Adam! The 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens at the Castro Theatre this Thursday, July 23rd and stays at that venue for a week. On August 1st, screenings move to the CinéArts theatre in Palo Alto, and to the Roda Theatre in Berkeley. Finally, the festival wraps up at the Jewish Community Center back here in Frisco August 8th and 9th, and at the Rafael in San Rafael August 8-10.

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