BERKELEY -- The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival marks its return to the East Bay with new venues in Oakland, a "Berkeley Big Night," an Oakland Art Murmur piggyback screening, and defining films sure to ignite imaginations and inspire rigorous post-show conversations.
It all starts on Aug. 2, with white supremacists, suicide, hidden sexuality, civil rights activism, ballroom dance, baseball and the heart-rending charm of Sam Berns. "Life According to Sam," a 2013 Sundance Film Festival selection, tells the story of a mother/genetic researcher and her crusade to fight progeria, the age-accelerating disease afflicting her son, a teenager who looks 70 years old. The film shows at 2:40 p.m. Aug. 2 at the California Theatre, 2113 Kittredge St.
That same night, at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater, "Awake Zion," which sports a terrific soundtrack and vibrant narration, precedes a live dub/reggae show and post-film Q&A with director Monica Haim. The director's ability to weave klezmer-reggae fusions into convincing, cross-genre patterns is entertainment with bite.
During Oakland's art walk, stepping inside the The New Parkway Theater at 7 p.m. Aug. 2 will place you within hitting distance of "The Trials of Muhammad Ali." The one-night screening of Bill Siegel's documentary -- about so much more than boxing -- gains renewed relevance against the backdrop of America's recent and ongoing immigration and race relations debates.
And that's just day one of a jam-packed schedule running through Aug. 12.
"Berkeley Big Night" on Aug. 3 opens with "Afternoon Delight," followed by a sip and nosh gathering in SFJFF's new party location at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley.
Sundance director Jill Soloway's 102-minute film slaps the silly out of Rachel, a thirtysomething Southern California mom who tries to find her true purpose by "saving" McKenna, a 20-year-old stripper. The film, directed with cunning and good humor, turns heads with adult content and characters who will leave you whispering to your neighbor, "I know that person ... and I despise him/her!"
If it all sounds a little too hip and hard, the East Bay run also offers humor and the safe harbor of history.
There's the lighthearted coming of age adaptation of Israeli novelist David Grossman's "The Zigzag Kid." Isabella Rossellini adds star power and even Grossman appears, in a cameo role at the film's end. Or, you can check out the wit and winks in "Every Tuesday: A Portrait of The New Yorker Cartoonists."
For history buffs, there's American Jerusalem: "Jews and the Building of San Francisco," by Oakland-based director Marc Shaffer. Painting 1849 San Francisco as ripe for young, male and not-particularly devout Jews, Shaffer balances silver-haired historians describing the "instant city's" growth and compelling archival imagery.
The dreams and financial empires of tunnel titan Adolph Sutro, Isaias Hellman of Wells Fargo and Levi Strauss shaped the city. By 1870, prosperity had diluted Jewish religion (this is one segment of the film where Shaffer allows talking-heads to bog down the documentary's pacing).
The film closes on the upbeat with the 1915 Panama—Pacific International Exposition heralding the city's recovery from the 1906 earthquake.
Director Antonin Svoboda's "The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich" profiles the prickly, controversial psychiatrist's final years from 1945 to 1957.
Reich's radical psychoanalytic techniques -- including placing cancer patients in "orgone accumulators" that came to be known in the media as "sex boxes," where "God energy" provided healing -- aroused the ire of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Defending himself in court, Reich received a two-year sentence and the bulk of his publications were destroyed.
Oscar-nominated actor Klaus Maria Brandaeur turns in a solid performance tinged with fallibility; the cast's subtle performances are precise and convincing.
Would a contemporary film festival be complete without a film about abortion? Sundance Film Festival 2013 entry "After Tiller," from co-directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, brings the issue to the table with fresh perspective that may cause some viewers to climb on the divisive fence, or at the least, teeter in their positions.
Details and a full schedule of screenings is online at www.sfjff.org.
The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs through Aug. 12 with showings at theaters around the Bay Area. Details and a full schedule of screenings is online at www.sfjff.org.