Reviews From The 39th S.F. Jewish Film Festival

by on July 16, 2019

Festival Opening Night Film Max Lewkowicz’ “Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles” may be more a triumph of subject goodwill and entertaining anecdotes.  This still charming documentary shows classic dark musical “Fiddler On The Roof”’s creation and how its tale of the travails of Tevye’s family continues to resonate worldwide.  Along the way, some of the musical’s various iterations from Norman Jewison’s film version to a Thai production are touched upon to delight the viewer.

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Some great one-liners such as describing shelves filled with books as “wallpaper for intellectuals” can be found in Sonke Wortmann’s comedy “How About Adolf?”  But rather than using these funny lines as comic bricks to throw through the windows of political pretension, the film squanders both its wit and its potentially transgressive set-up in a failed effort to ridicule Germany’s current Nazism taboos.

The film’s primary setting  is a family dinner party. Narrator Elisabeth Berger-Bottcher is a middle-school progressive teacher who describes herself as supporting racial integration before it became a thing.  Proud leftist husband Stephan teaches modern German literature at the University of Bonn. Orchestra clarinetist Rene King has such a long and intimate emotional friendship with Elisabeth that she refers to him as “the sister she never had.”  Elisabeth’s brother Thomas is a successful and wealthy real estate broker. Thomas’ wife Anna, an aspiring actress, will be arriving late as her appetite’s lost thanks to her pregnancy.

Curiosity about the name of Thomas and Anna’s child sets the film’s conflicts in motion.  For the black sheep brother makes the other dinner party guests guess before revealing the child will be called Adolf…as in the first name of the incredibly notorious Nazi leader.

The film begins with Elisabeth’s musings on street naming.  Streets named after cultural figures such as Goethe and Beethoven become both honorifics and banalizations.  But the closest this grade-school teacher’s musings comes towards the political is her noting how Clara Schumann hasn’t been given a similar public due despite her success.

Even this prelude doesn’t quite prepare the viewer for the effect Thomas’ announcement has on the other dinner party guests.  What was once an academic thought exercise becomes deeply personal. The expected consternation erupts and Stephan in particular takes his brother-in-law’s announcement very badly.  Since there has been a long history of low-level hostility between the two dating back to childhood, the university professor goes off on his brother-in-law.

As “How About Adolf” develops, though, it becomes painfully clear Wortmann’s film understands nothing about the politics of defanging derogatory terms.  It thinks such politics revolve around finding the absurdity in the taboos around certain names. But that’s not how such defanging works. When an oppressed minority proudly uses an insult regularly thrown at them (e.g. lesbians proudly using the term “dykes” as in Dykes on Bikes), it’s a declaration that they reject the hurtfulness of the insult.  However, when a possible member of the oppressing class uses the insult, the presumption is that such a person is using the term to hurt. It’s the supposed oppressor’s burden to prove a lack of malicious intent. Thomas’ plans to name his son Adolf lack any commitment to finding ways of removing the stigma associated with the name.

Long-missed comedian Bill Hicks comically turned taboo-breaking into a medium to facilitate audience understanding of larger human truths.  “How About Adolf?” doesn’t even come close to sparking new insights. Instead, it contents itself with dipping into the cobwebbed gay as insult well and having the supposedly progressive Elisabeth fade into the play’s background.  Then again, given that Thomas gets the film’s best lines, perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise.

A viewer interested in encountering entertaining taboo busting really should turn back to Hicks’ routines or a better George Carlin performance.  “How About Adolf?” just feels like a waste of time.

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What role, if any, should personal wealth play in affecting a person’s ability to survive a natural disaster?  That question lies at the heart of Judith Helfand’s disturbing new documentary “Cooked: Survival By Zip Code.” The 2019 Freedom Of Expression Award winner’s new film uses a personal query to launch an examination of racial justice and the class-based nature of disaster preparedness.

Seeing how family and others prepared to handle the arrival of Hurricane Sandy made the filmmaker think about an event that occurred nearly twenty years ago.  In mid-July 1995, the city of Chicago was struck for several days by a heat wave which sent daily temperatures into triple digits. While media attention focused on the weather itself, far less interest was paid to the reasons why over 500 people died during this heat wave.  Why were heat-related deaths concentrated in certain parts of Chicago? Why doesn’t Helfand remember these horrific events today? The filmmaker’s search for answers will lead to encounters with those who work in the disaster preparedness industry as well as those trying to remedy glaring holes in the current public safety net.

Reporter Aaron Kleinenberg wrote the book on the Chicago heat wave that sparked Helfand’s curiosity.  He noted the deaths from the 1995 heat wave happened in the form of small numbers of individuals dying in scattered places at different times instead of a large number of people dying in one spot in an instant.  In Kleinenberg’s opinion, those hundreds of deaths still made that 1995 incident a natural disaster.

It’s infuriating seeing television news and Chicago city government dodge any responsibility for treating the heat wave deaths as a cause for alarm.  Television news clips show those days of extreme heat were handled as an inconvenient novelty at worst. The city government didn’t publicly treat the sudden need to rent refrigerator trucks to hold a huge influx of heat deaths as extremely alarming.  If anything, Mayor Richard M. Daley publicly blamed relatives of the deceased for failing to look out for their elderly relatives. Heaven forbid city government officials consider elderly people who lacked relatives or friends who could check in on them during this crisis.

The viewer’s negative impressions of Chicago city government decision makers’ handling of the crisis gets reinforced by Helfand’s interviews with such Cook County medical personnel as retired Chief Medical Officer Linda Rae Murray, M.D. and Coroner Forensic Scientist Maureen Finn.  It seemed far more than simple misfortune that most of the heat deaths occurred to the residents of Chicago’s poorer areas.

Helfand’s trip down to those neighborhoods where heat deaths were recorded underscore just how vulnerable the people living here were to such a disaster.  The once-vibrant communities seen in old photographs has now given way to lots of abandoned buildings and boarded up storefronts.

In poorer neighborhoods, having housing and keeping cool from the extreme heat became incompatible goals.  SRO hotel residents couldn’t afford air conditioners or even the electricity to power them. Elderly poor who lived alone risked either home invasion by leaving their windows open or death from superheated air by keeping their windows nailed shut.

It definitely doesn’t feel like a coincidence that when Helfand superimposes over a chart of 1995 heat deaths maps of Chicago neighborhoods subjected to redlining or food supply problems, there is significant overlap.  And though Chicago’s Director of Epidemiology Steve Whitman, Ph.D. doesn’t name names, is it a coincidence that he chooses to continue his work on the public health and poverty link outside the offices of city government?

The director raises the devastating point that when a person struggles economically to scrape by day-to-day, they lack the extra money to think about such problems as preparing to survive natural disasters.  This insight logically leads to considering whether remedying poverty-related problems could be a new way of approaching disaster preparedness. Helfand’s reasonable query unfortunately gets greeted by people in the disaster preparedness business with variations on “that’s not my concern.”

The ultimately disheartening coda to “Cooked: Survival By Zip Code” comes in considering the federal government’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Despite the admittedly different nature of this disaster, the poorer victims of Katrina still ended up worse off than their more prosperous neighbors.

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Rachel Leah Jones’ intriguing DocAviv award-winner “Advocate” follows Jewish attorney Lea Tsemel’s high-profile defense of an adolescent Palestinian accused of attempted murders.  Interviews with friends and family members plus a recounting of Tsemel’s legal and political history show this sometimes prickly left-winger as either a human rights advocate or an enabler of terrorism.  Unless, of course, Tsemel’s trying to release from laws supporting The Occupation the better angels of Jewish jurisprudence. The viewer can decide.

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The Israeli government’s interest in imprisoning people who “undermine” the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) by filming its soldiers may seem like an odd legislative aim.  But Andres Gallegos’ documentary short “Guy Hircefeld, A Guy With A Camera” shows what the Israeli government is trying to prevent.

The film’s 49-year-old subject did his IDF service in his younger days.  But that service took place during the first Palestinian Intifada. The former soldier doesn’t offer any details about his activities at that time.  Yet the sense emerges that he wasn’t proud of what he did.

Hircefeld’s post-IDF non-violent political activity, as implied by the film’s title, involves a lot of filming.  But it’s what activists like Hircefeld film that has the likes of the IDF and settler movement members seeking to stop him.  It’s one thing to support The Occupation when a person can rationalize it by saying it’s necessary to ensure Israeli security.  But the alleged necessity feels like bullying pettiness when Hircefeld’s camera shows an arrest turns out to be retribution for displaying insufficient compliance.  Or else “necessity” feels like absurd paranoia, as seen when IDF soldiers think a bomb is concealed inside a clearly unopened watermelon.

Equally damning footage comes from an encounter with Israeli settlers near a mountaintop.  Hircefeld and fellow activists form a human line separating the settlers from Palestinians who have come to the area to allow their sheep to graze and get water.  While the Palestinians try to tend to their animals, seventeen settlers scream curses and initiate violence by throwing sticks and stones at both Palestinians and activists.  The physical high grounds of the mountains may be occupied by the settlers. But they definitely don’t occupy the moral high ground.

What ultimately makes the footage Hircefeld shoots dangerous to those who want The Occupation to continue indefinitely are the images’ pitiless stripping away of self-delusions.  Personal security and alleged religious entitlement provide reasons for the unaware to mentally look the other way regarding The Occupation’s shortcomings. The footage shown in Gallegos’ film shows that these motivations are actually unreasonable fear of the other and glorified avarice.

Ultimately, what the Israeli government is attempting to outlaw are visual attempts to appeal to IDF soldiers’ consciences and rejection of complicity in an unjust land grab.  Hircefeld fortunately makes it clear that such punitive threats will not deter his political work.

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The anecdote that gives Tyler Gildin’s short documentary “The Starfish” its title concerns a beach encounter between an old man and a boy who throws starfishes back into the ocean.  The boy wants to save the starfishes from dying at low tide. This story’s relevance to the life of subject (and filmmaker’s grandfather) Herb Gildin isn’t explained until the end, though some viewers will quickly guess.

At its most basic level, the documentary can be summarized as “my grandfather finally tells how he came to America.”  Yet within the story that the 88-year-old man tells, there’s a relocation agency, long journeys, and personal setbacks.  Indeed, as old traumatic events are recalled, Herb Gildin’s current life in the well-off suburb of Huntington, New York seems more and more miraculous.

Gildin’s life begins simply enough as a shoemaker’s youngest child living with his family in Landsberg, Germany.  Father Abraham Gildin had a thriving business where even German soldiers would ask for his services in repairing their boots.  However, when the Kristallnacht terror reached even this German town, Gildin’s parents realized it was time to protect their children.

Thanks to the efforts of HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigration Aid Society), Herb and older sisters Cele and Margaret were relocated to Falun, Sweden to the care of Swedish households willing to take them in.  While Margaret lucked out and Cele’s placement could have been worse, Herb didn’t find a good fit until he was placed with the Silow family. In particular, younger daughter Agneta was close enough in age to Herb that they became playmates.

To reunite the Gildin family, Herb and his sisters had to relocate to America.  The roundabout route for that trip was necessary to ensure the children didn’t get caught in a war zone.  As expected, the children ran into several mishaps and even close calls before finally meeting father Abraham and mother Fanny in New York City.

Hearing Gildin’s story told warmly and with rueful humor helps takes some sting out of his recounting the less happy parts of his life.  Herb didn’t speak a word of Swedish and his first Swedish hosts didn’t speak a word of German. The money Cele smuggled to help the Gildins start a new life in America turned out to be worthless.  Herb’s hypercritical father-in-law Al Fastow continually made him feel like a clumsy loser.

The hardships and setbacks Gildin describes make the strokes of good luck he receives feel all the more sweeter.  Gloria Fastow got over her prejudice against Germans to eventually become Gildin’s wife. Gildin’s decision to go into a different line of work would eventually lead to his thriving SatCo business.

But the short documentary’s sweetest moments come with Gildin’s reunion with the Silows.  Returning to Falun, the now elderly former German Jew learns that Mieve and Agneta Silow still remember him warmly.  That reunion eventually leads to a dinner at which Gildin recites the rest of the anecdote heard at the beginning of the film.

The parallels between the anecdote and Gildin’s life experiences offer a valuable life lesson worth repeating:  Mourn not that you cannot save every endangered life. Take joy in your ability to save even one life.

(“Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles” screens at 6:30 PM on July 18, 2019.  “How About Adolf?” screens at 8:45 PM on July 19, 2019. “Cooked: Survival By Zip Code” screens at 5:30 PM on July 22, 2019.  “Advocate” screens at 3:20 PM on July 27, 2019. “Guy Hircefeld, A Guy With A Camera” and “The Starfish” screen at 11:10 AM on July 25, 2019 as part of the “Jews In Shorts: Documentaries” program.  All screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF). For further information about the films, information about East Bay and South Bay screenings, and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfjff.org .)

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