Boxing, bigots, beauty, booze: Weighty themes permeate SF Jewish Film Festival docs
SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival  broadens its scope this year with a theme — "Life Through a Jew(ish) Lens" — that allows it to encompass a wide spectrum of films. Though plenty of SFJFF's programs do specifically address Jewish religion and culture, some of the films I watched were only tangentially "Jew(ish)" — as in, they simply happened to be made by a Jewish filmmaker. For fans of quality programming, however, that's a moot point: SFJFF 2013 is a solid if eclectic festival, with a typically strong showing of documentaries well worth seeking out.
Previously seen locally at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's After Tiller  is as timely as ever, with the advent of increasingly restrictive abortion legislation in states like Texas and North Carolina. This doc focuses on the four (yes, only four) doctors in America who are able to perform late-term abortions — all colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, assassinated in 2009 by a militant anti-abortionist.
The film highlights the struggles of what's inherently a deeply difficult job; even without sign-toting (and possibly gun-toting) protestors lurking outside their offices, and ever-shifting laws dictating the legality of their practices, the situations the doctors confront on a daily basis are harrowing. We sit in as couples make the painful decision to abort babies with "horrific fetal abnormalities;" a rape victim feels guilt and relief after terminating a most unwanted pregnancy; a 16-year-old Catholic girl in no position to raise a child worries that her decision to abort will haunt her forever; and a European woman who decides she can't handle another kid tries to buy her way into the procedure. The patients' faces aren't shown, but the doctors allow full access to their lives and emotions — heavy stuff.
Similarly devastating is Brave Miss World , Cecilia Peck's portrait of Israeli activist Linor Abargil, who survived a violent rape just weeks before she won the Miss World pageant in 1998. As Linor travels around the world on her mission to help others heal from their own sexual assaults, it becomes clear that she still has some lingering issues of her own to deal with. Taking action — working tirelessly to keep her rapist in prison; making a painful return trip to Milan, where the attack happened — only brings a certain amount of closure. Her emotional fragility manifests itself in a newfound embrace of religion (much to the confusion of her largely secular family, fiancé, and gay best friend), which is somewhat at odds with Brave Miss World's female-empowerment message. Still, though it gets a bit documentary-as-therapy, Brave Miss World offers a compelling look at one woman's determined quest to help others who've suffered similar traumas — urging them, through sheer force of personality, to speak out and become activists themselves.
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.
Race also factors, inevitably, into The Trials of Muhammad Ali , Bill Siegel's lively investigation of the boxing champ's Nation of Islam conversion, name change, and refusal to fight in Vietnam. If you've seen an Ali doc before (or even the 2001 biopic), a lot of the footage and material will feel familiar. But Trials, which offers interviews with Louis Farrakhan and Ali's former wife Khalilah, among others, does well to narrow its focus onto one specific — albeit complicated and controversial — aspect of Ali's life.
Contemporary civil rights struggles factor heavily in Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army  (first screened here at DocFest), about a trio of public defenders struggling with daunting work loads (one women has 180 clients at a time) and a system seemingly rigged against low-income defendants, many of whom plead guilty, whether or not they actually are, because they simply have no other options. Like After Tiller, it's a doc that offers a sobering, eye-opening look at a job you wouldn't want — yet makes you glad that those who do it are such steadfast characters.
And if all that sounds too intense, take note of these two films: Mehrnaz Saeedvafa's Jerry and Me , in which the filmmaker and teacher reflects on Hollywood's influence on her pre-revolutionary Tehran youth (including her love of Jerry Lewis; if you've ever wanted to see clips of 1960's Cinderfella dubbed in Persian, this is your chance); and Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle , a made-for-Irish-TV concert film that spotlights the singer in 2006, before her slide into addiction derailed her career and ended her life. Here, her voice sounds stunning as she croons her hits in a tiny, 200-year-old church; she's also sweetly jazzed to discuss her influences (dig her story of hearing Ray Charles for the first time) in an accompanying sit-down interview that reveals how endearing and intelligent she could be. *
SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
July 25-Aug 12, most shows $12
Various venues in SF, Berk, Oakl, San Rafael, and Palo Alto