Boxing, bigots, beauty, booze: Weighty themes permeate SF Jewish Film Festival docs
More cinematic therapy is offered up by the structurally similar Here One Day and My Father and the Man in Black. In both of these first-person docs, the filmmaker remembers a parent who committed suicide, making extensive use (in both cases) of remarkably candid audio and written diaries that were left behind. In Here One Day, Kathy Leichter delves into her troubled mother's manic depression as she cleans out the closets of the New York City apartment where she grew up — and where her own young family now resides. Even more fraught with meaning than her mother's physical leftovers — a mix of both meaningful (her writings and recordings) and pack-ratty (a trash-scavenged Marie Antoinette bust, a Coca-Cola memorabilia collection) — is the window where she leapt to her death in 1995. Leichter's father, longtime New York State Senator Franz Leichter, is among the family members who speak openly about the event.
Filmmaker Jonathan Holiff's My Father and the Man in Black is no less personal, but it offers slightly broader appeal, weaving the tale of Holiff's father, Saul Holiff, and his stint as Johnny Cash's manager from 1960-73. Holiff's association with Cash coincided with the musician's At Folsom Prison triumph, but also with the height of his raging drug problem; the beleaguered Holiff spent much of his time doing damage control in the wake of cancelled (or should-have-been cancelled) concerts. Parenting wasn't a high priority, the younger Holiff recalls, but once the filmmaker discovers his father's memoir and memorabilia-stuffed storage locker, he's able to piece together the man behind the anger (and the drinking problem). The film relies perhaps too heavily on re-enactments (that, in turn, are heavily inspired by 2005's Walk the Line), but it offers a not-often-seen perspective on show biz's darker aspects, as witnessed by a man tasked with managing a superstar whose addictions often threatened to overtake his talent.
Beyond parental angst, another favorite theme among SFJFF doc-makers is race. Paul Saltzman builds off an incident in his own life for The Last White Knight, an insightful but at-times difficult to watch film anchored by an interview with Delay De La Beckwith, aging racist. (His father, the late Byron De La Beckwith, was finally convicted in 1997 of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963.) Saltzman and the younger Beckwith, who are around the same age, first met in 1965: one, an idealistic student who traveled to Mississippi to help register African American voters; the other, a proud KKK member who punched Saltzman in the face because he didn't care much for meddling outsiders. Welcome to the South!
Using animation, interviews with other civil rights activists (including Harry Belafonte and Morgan Freeman — though the latter insists "I don't talk race"), and personal reflections, The Last White Knight strives to explore the current state of race in America. At its heart, though, it's about the two men who form a surprising friendship of sorts, despite their combative past. It's unclear, after all these years, if Beckwith is truly a chuckling specter of evil ("Got what they deserved," he drawls when asked about the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner), or a simple-minded man who thinks nothing of saying "Obama is a direct descendent of the devil" — and, while smiling and chatting with a man he knows is Jewish, "Jews control all the money and the media." Jaw-dropping doesn't begin to cover it, but Saltzman remains admirably composed throughout.
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