August 5th, 2002


Selective film festival reviews

(Interupting the travel diary)

I’ve been at the Jewish Film Festival the last two days. Unfortunately in Berkeley, not SF. Watching movies at the Castro is much more enjoyable than at Wheeler Hall on the UCB campus. Also the audience in SF, for this film festival at least, tends to be a little less smug. But maybe I’m projecting.

There’s something about film festival audiences that really fascinates as it grates on my nerves. There’s so much at stake in the representation of community that audiences participate in a way that seems especially desperate. As if, without their "appropriate" applause, hissing or laughter the message would somehow be lost among their supposed peers. It’s very interesting the way the audiences can polarize over issues in the community at times, One faction applauds than the opposite side will try and applaud more loudly when their side is represented.

At Frameline, the GLBTQ film fest, people mostly try to out PC each other. At "The Man Who Drove Mandela", a film about a gay, white, anti-apartheid, South African, a recording of apartheid laws, circa 1948, was played during the historical part of the documentary. Someone actually hissed. What a brave militant taking a stand against apartheid more than a decade after it ended. I burst out laughing, no doubt reinforcing the hisser’s feeling of danger. Maybe there was a Fascist in the audience: in SF. . . in the Castro. . . at film about Nelson Mandela. . . in 2002.

There is always underlying conflict at the Jewish Film Fest. The leftists and the Zionists. The religious and the secular. The Californians and the New Yorkers. But also, as with Frameline, there’s also the fight between people seeking "positive" soothing films about their identity and those who want to challenge what popular images and dialogue mean on a political level.

I’ve seen two shorts and two longer films since Sunday morning. "Song of a Jewish Cowboy" is about a slow talking, California Jewish cowboy who sings original country songs and traditional Yiddish ones. I wish I could say his original songs were good, but they just weren’t. And I like country, One song really said something about how you "can disco in Dallas / play pop in Nashville /But here in California, we play it country." But it was still a really good short, managing in 20 minutes or so to get at some issues of what it means to be a Jew. Especially an atheist, rural, country-singing one. Best line, "aah consider maah-self to be a member of the international working claaass".

Where did he come from? He was raised at the socialist chicken ranching community in Petaluma California, about an hour from SF. I had really been looking forward to "A Home on the Range" (the next movie) because I had read a book about this community a few years ago. I had no idea it existed even though it was based close to were I grew up. Unfortunately the movie was a mess, bringing up interesting concepts and history and moving on too quickly to get into them.

One shining moment: Talking about the collapse of the community under McCarthyism and de-Stalinization, when the Zionists took power and banned the leftists from the community hall* one interviewee said something fairly interesting in the context of a Jewish film Festival. (Not verbatim) "These people were socialists and they believed that the best hope for the world was through socialism as represented by the only socialist state. That’s why they flip flopped and followed such an unjustifiable path. Unfortunately you can see this still happening with Jews today in another port of the world."

Desperate feel-good moment: lots of applause at the line "Being Jewish means supporting social change." If only it was true.

Unintentionally hilarious moment: A somewhat confused older woman standing up and saying "I’m looking for a relative who was there. His name is Ginsberg. Allen Ginsberg. Has anyone heard of his whereabouts?" When the crowd burst into laughter and the movie maker said, "I think it’s a different one", she just looked even more confused.

I then saw "Past Perfect", the obligatory The-Holocaust-was-bad-listen-to-my-poetry-and-look-at-my-boring-images short. ‘Nuff said.

"Martin" was the best movie I’ve seen in awhile. An Israeli goes to Dachau and meets Martin, a camp survivor who lives in the town of Dachau and visits the camp everyday talking to visitors. He’s not an official guide and he accepts money from visitors in exchange for his stories which differ from the official versions. Can he be trusted? Are his memories real, imagined, or created? Why does the film maker want to make him a hero then tear him down when he appears imperfect and human? Who is served by Holocaust tourism bureaucracy? How do versions of history become accepted? Why do people visit concentration camps and what do they expect to see/how do they expect to feel? Self-examined, smart and challenging. If you get a chance, see this movie.

It actually dovetailed with my thoughts on memory in my last entry. The politics of memory and its effect on community is fascinating me this week for some reason. Luckily, I could leave with that on my mind. Mercifully, there was no Q and A to ruin it for me.

* That’s a gross generalization about why the community collapsed. But space is short
  • Current Music
    Feelings on a Grid - "Shaved and Prepared"