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Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival brings its best films to San Rafael’s Rafael Film Center August 6-8, 2011

Feliks Falk’s “Joanna” opens the Marin programming for the 31st San Francisco Jewish Festival. Urszula Grabowska (left) is Joanna, a Polish woman who finds seven-year-old Rose (Sara Knothe ) sleeping in the pews of a church and is faced with a split-second decision—to take the child with her or leave her for the Nazis. Image courtesy SFJF.

For those of us who live in the North Bay, the travel time and various costs associated with going to San Francisco for even a special film can put a damper on the most enthusiastic of fans.  Next Saturday, August 6, 2011, through Monday, August 8, 2011,  the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will cross the bridge and splash onto the screen of Marin’s Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center offering 16 of its best films and shorts.  This year’s festival opened in San Francisco on July 21 and this is its 15th year of presentations in Marin.  The first and still the largest of its kind, the festival showcases some of the best and brightest cinematic gems—offering a full complement of films, celebrations, panel discussions and international guests—that highlight various aspects of Jewish culture.

Opening Night, August 6, kicks off with Joanna, a riveting drama

On Saturday August 6—the opening evening—Marin audiences will be treated to film and theater director Feliks Falk’s Joanna [Poland, 2011, 105 min], which proposes the altruistic dilemma—what would you risk to save another during World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland?   Joanna (Urszula Grabowska) is a gentile woman who finds 8-year-old Rose, a Jewish girl abandoned in a church, and faces this dilemma knowing that any choice she makes will be life-changing.  They embark on a relationship that helps to heal their respective losses, but Joanna faces difficult decisions if Rose is to survive.  Following Joanna that evening is Ben Berkowitz’s Polish Bar [US, 2010, 96 min], which centers on ambitious Reuben Horowitz (Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza) who works in his Uncle Sol’s (Judd Hirsch) Chicago jewelry store but dreams of DJing at a top local club.  Reaching for his dream, Reuben rolls the dice with his uncle Sol’s merchandise on a big drug score in this gritty, raucous drama suffused with an urban Jewish hip-hop vibe. Berkowitz will appear in person at the San Rafael screening.

Monday night, the Festival comes to a close with Avi Nesher’s The Matchmaker [Israel, 2010, 112 min], an affectionate, bittersweet feature set in 1960s Haifa, in which protagonist Arik’s eye-opening summer vacation includes the sexy Iraqi-Jewish-American niece of his best friend, a seedy downtown movie theater run by a group of Jewish dwarfs who met at Auschwitz, and Yankele Bride—matchmaker, shady businessman and Holocaust survivor.

Diverse stories with international flavors

This year’s program is especially strong on documentaries.  It begins with Marin’s first screening next Saturday:  Incessant Visions—Letters from an Architect [Israel, 2011, 70 min].  This is Duki Dror’s (My Fantastia, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, Mr. Cortisone, Happy Days) compelling meditation on the life and career of the architect Eric Mendelsohn.  Of local interest, Mendelsohn’s granddaughter, Daria Joseph, is a Marin resident.

Next Year in Bombay [France, India, 2010, 55 min], a co-production by Jonas Parientè and Mathias Mangin, profiles the surprising diversity of India’s Jewish communities.  The film focuses on a young couple’s struggle with their desire to see Judaism thrive in India and their commitment to providing their children with a Jewish education which is only possible if they move to Israel.

From France, Rose Bosch’s The Roundup [France, 2009, 120 min] is the harrowing investigative account of the Vel d’Hiv roundup of Paris’ Jews in 1942 with a stand-out performance by French actor Jean Reno (The Professional).  Standing Silent [US, 2010, 82 min] is Scott Rosenfelt’s profile of journalist Phil Jacobs, whose crusade to unmask sexual predators within the Jewish community exposes him to ostracism for exposing the community to external scrutiny.  Liz Garbus (Shouting Fire) brings a portrait of the complicated life of the tormented chess genius in Bobby Fischer Against the World [US, 2010, 92 min].

Also screening at the Rafael Film Center and part of the San Francisco portion of SFJFF festival programming is Crime After Crime [US, 2011, 95 min], Yoav Potash’s unforgettable chronicle of a woman’s fight against horrible injustice.  Winner of both Audience Choice and Golden Gate awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival, this compelling documentary tells the story of the legal battle to free Debbie Peagler, an incarcerated survivor of domestic violence.  Over 26 years in prison could not crush the spirit of this determined African-American woman, despite the wrongs she suffered, first at the hands of a duplicitous boyfriend who beat her and forced her into prostitution, and later by prosecutors who used the threat of the death penalty to corner her into a life behind bars for her connection to the murder of her abuser.  Her story takes an unexpected turn when her cause is taken up by two volunteer attorneys: Joshua Safran, who witnessed spousal abuse as a child and whose identity as an Orthodox Jew fuels his work on the case, and Nadia Costa, a former social worker for Children’s Protective Services in Los Angeles.  Tickets for this exceptional film, which opens Friday,  August 5, 2011 at the Rafael Film Center with multiple screenings, can be purchased directly from the Rafael Film Center, as it is not officially part of the Marin festival offerings.

On the narrative side, thought-provoking stories abound from Israel, Poland and Germany, as well as America.  Aside from the opening and closing night offerings of Joanna, Polish Bar and The Matchmaker, from Israel comes Mabul (The Flood) [Israel, Canada, France, Germany, 2011, 97 min], directed by Guy Nattiv, which paints the unstable members of the Rosko family, each hiding dark secrets from the others.  Affairs, adolescence, drugs and unemployment plague the Roskos, and when autistic son Tomer suddenly rejoins the family, the building pressure explodes. The sharp performances of the cast earned the film 6 Ofir nominations, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars.

Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar [Israel, 2010, 110 min] is a beautiful narrative based on a 1991 David Grossman novel and is movingly told from the point of view of the teenage son of a dysfunctional family in 1960’s Jerusalem. From Poland, Jan Kidawa-Blonski’s Little Rose [Poland, 2010, 118 min] is a Cold War espionage thriller that opens as news of the Six Day War arrives.  In this paranoid atmosphere, a blond bombshell (Magdalena Boczarska) is hired by the secret police to spy on a renowned intellectual (Andrzej Seweryn) suspected of subversive views.  This twisted love story becomes entangled with the intrigues of the State security apparatus.

In an Austrian/German/Hungarian co-production, Elizabeth Scharang’s debut feature In Another Lifetime [Austria, Germany, Hungary, 2010, 94 min] (see ARThound’s full review) is a haunting and bittersweet tale of Hungarian Jews on a forced march towards death who stage a Strauss operetta in an Austrian village in a vain hope to survive their fate.

About the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), turned 31 this year and is the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival.  There are 58 films in all─38 full-length  films in all—38 full-length films (23 documentaries and 15 narratives) and 19 shorts (10 documentaries, 1 narrative and 8 animations) from 16 countries.  There are many free events too.  Attracting more than 33,000 filmgoers annually, SFJFF is world-renowned for the diversity and breadth of its audiences and films.  SFJFF’s mission is to promote awareness and appreciation of the diversity of the Jewish people, provide a dynamic and inclusive forum for exploration of and dialogue about the Jewish experience, and encourage independent filmmakers working with Jewish themes.

The SFJFF Jewish Film Forum

Members of SFJFF’s Jewish Film Forum receive exclusive discounts on all festival tickets, passes and 10-Flix vouchers. The Jewish Film Forum is SFJFF’s year-round affiliation program bringing film lovers together to enjoy and support the mission and programs of SFJFF. Memberships, which begin at $50, may be purchased online or by phone when ordering tickets.

Details:  The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is located at 1118 Fourth Street in San Rafael.  Metered parking is available on the street or chose from several lots close by.  The San Rafael portion of the festival starts next Saturday, August 6, 2011 and runs through Monday, August 8, 2011. 

Tickets are $12.00 for the general public and can be purchased online or by phone (M-F 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) at 415.621.0523.  Tickets are also available for same day purchase at individual screening venues but screenings may sell out in advance www.sfjff.org.  “Discount 10-Flix Voucher Packs” are $100 for the general public. Group rates and special prices for students and seniors are available.

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July 31, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review: Elisabeth Scharang’s “In Another Lifetime,” an Austrian period film of operetta and audacity premieres at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 21 –August 8, 2011

 

Ursula Strauss (right) delivers an intense performance as Traudl Fasching, in the West Coast premiere of Elisabeth Scharang’s debut feature film “In Another Lifetime.” Fasching is a sympathetic Austrian farmer's wife in whose barn 20 emaciated Jewish prisoners are camping. Franziska Singer (left) plays Poldi, the family maid, whose boyfriend, an SS officer, is missing. Image courtesy of SFJFF31.

Austrian documentarian Elisabeth Scharang’s debut feature film In Another Lifetime makes its West Coast premiere at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  Set in Austria in April 1945, during the chaotic final days of World War II, the film is one of the festival’s most interesting offerings and from its opening scene, cast in the natural light of the Austrian Alps, there is no turning away.  Its subject matter—an operetta performance that offers hope and healing to both Jewish prisoners and their captors— hasn’t been tackled before in Holocaust film.  Subplots of forbidden love, a marriage numbed by the devastation of losing a child, and risk-taking to do what’s inherently right pitted against insidious conformity all add up to a compelling story set within an ominous larger picture of mass death and evil.  What sets this fictional period film apart, though, is its use of the palliative experience of music, specifically opera, as an escape from the surreal experience of war.  The film is based on a play by screenwriters Silke Hassler and Peter Turrini.

The story begins as a group of 20 exhausted and starving Hungarian Jews are led on a forced death march by the German Wehrmacht through the back provinces of Austria towards the Mauthausen concentration camp.  After a brief rest, an elderly prisoner refuses to fall back into line and marches off and is shot dead.  One emaciated young man, with a mop of dark hair, plays a few piercing stanzas on his violin.  Music is the connective tissue of this film and Scharang uses it brilliantly throughout.

Because the Wehrmacht are seeking to evade the approaching Red Army, they leave the small group of Jews stranded in a tiny Austrian village and entrust them to the village policemen and the Volkssturm (the “storm of the people” or people’s army, Hitler’s last ditch defense in WWII).  Typically for this period, rural populations, now unbound from the authority of superiors, treated the Jews according to their own personal characters and beliefs, with results ranging from the kindest examples of generosity to the cruelest acts of barbarism.  This group is locked in the hay barn of the Faschings, an embittered farmer and his sullen wife (Johannes Krisch and Ursula Strauss, paired again after their brilliant performances in Revanche, [2009, Austria], nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film). Exhibiting compassion and bravery, it is the maid Poldi (Franziska Singer) who first defies the rules to feed and communicate with the prisoners and then pulls in Traudl Fasching (Ursula Strauss), who is soon giving them all of her bread and soup and listening to their music.

 
 
 

The French cinematographer, Jean-Claude Larrieu masterfully bathes each scene in natural light, infusing even the most humdrum kitchen work and chores with Vermeer-like drama.  The characters’ plain clothing, pale household interiors, stark barn and compositions all back up the Vermeer-like atmosphere, creating a series of mundane yet monumental freeze-frame portraits.   

As is fairly typical in Holocaust literature and film, the inspirational figure who steps forward to buoy spirits is an artist—recall Adrian Brody, the title character in The Pianist [2002, USA].  When Péter Végh, as charismatic Hungarian tenor Lou Gandolf, senses the women’s compassion, he outlandishly proposes that their motley group stage Wiener Blut, a Strauss operetta, for the locals, and convinces them all that art for art’s sake—the humanity of music–is all that remains in this bleak situation.  Gandolf’s curious display of sheer pluck is balanced by his character’s intuitive ability to be completely passive when necessary.

Hell breaks loose when Stefan Fasching (Johannes Krisch) discovers what his wife is doing in the barn and the great risk it poses for them in this tightly-knit community.  It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off of Kirsch, who delivers a particularly intense performance as a man so hardened by the loss of his son that he too might as well be facing death.  He is still deeply affected by music though, and once his fingers find their home on his old accordion, he softens and offers to play in the production.

Austrian filmmaker Elisabeth Scharang’s debut feature film “In Another Lifetime” takes place in a hay barn in an Austrian village where stranded Jewish prisoners prepare to stage a version of the beloved operetta Wiener Blut, hoping to win the protection of the locals. Photo courtesy: SFJFF31.

Carefully selected music is one of the film’s most appealing features.  The operetta Wiener Blut  (literally “Viennese Blood” or “Viennese Spirit”) evokes both soft nostalgia as well as the  indomitable Viennese spirit and will to survive, which encompasses the prisoners’ situation as well.  The operetta is named after the spirited “Wiener Blut Waltz” (Op. 354) by the 19th –century “waltz king” Johann Strauss, Jr. composer of such frothy classics “The Bue Danube” (“Die Schönen Blauen Donau”), “The Emperor Waltz” (“Kaiser-Walzer”), and the operetta Die Fledermaus.  Strauss waltzes remain the most powerful signifiers of old Vienna, nostalgically evoking the lost glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a time during which the Austrians retreated into light-hearted celebration of old-fashioned culture as a way of ignoring change.  Emblematically, Wiener Blut unfolds against the glittering backdrop of the Congress of Vienna (November 1814- June 1815), a meeting of the Great Powers of Europe to agree upon the boundaries of post-Napoleonic Europe, but the operetta’s plot focuses entirely on the philandering of an Ambassador-Count who represents a tiny principality attending the Congress.  In Another Lifetime also makes canny use of the title song of Rose Marie by Czech-born composer Rudolf Friml, a Viennese-style American operetta regarded as frivolous pop music at the time.  Here it is played endlessly by an otherwise insignificant young Volkssturm officer who sequesters himself inside a seized home with a confiscated gramophone.  

What finally transpires in this story makes In Another Lifetime one of the most gripping assemblages of character studies among the festival’s offerings. Elisabeth Scharang gradually and masterfully infuses us with hope, despite the forces of evil advancing just outside the barn.  In the end, as we are left morally outraged, a beautiful and unforgettable image set some 60 years after the film’s main action ends shifts our thoughts to the responsibility and burden of those who witness mass violence.  And a Strauss’ waltz, which has insistently worked its way into our subconscious, plays over and over again in our heads.

Click inside box to enlarge text.

 In Another Lifetime:  Austria, Germany, Hungary, 2010, 94 min., in German and Hungarian with English Subtitles

Director: Elisabeth Scharang

Screenwriters: Silke Hassler, Peter Turrini,

Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu

Principal Cast:  Johannes Krisch, Péter Végh, Ursula Strauss, Franziska Singer

 Details:  “In Another Lifetime” screens 4 times at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 3:45 PM, Castro Theatre, San Francisco

Tuesday August 2, 2011, 8:55 PM, RODA Theatre (at Berkeley Rep), Berkeley

Wednesday, August 3, 2011, 8:30 PM, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Palo Alto

Sunday, August 7, 2011, 1:40 PM, Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

Tickets are $10 to $12.00 and can be purchased online or by phone at 415.621.0523.  Tickets are also available for same day purchase at individual screening venues but screenings may sell out in advance.  The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival  (www.sfjff.org ), July 21-August 8, 2011, is the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival, featuring 58 films in all.  There are 38 full-length films (23 documentaries and 15 narratives) and 19 shorts (10 documentaries, 1 narrative and 8 animations) from 16 countries.  There are many free events too. 

 

July 29, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Healdsburg’s Hammerfriar Gallery is Moving: Celebrate this Saturday, July 9, 2011

 As of July 9th, 2011, Hammerfriar Gallery in Healdsburg will be located at 132 Mill Street, Suite 101, Healdsburg CA. 95448.  Come celebrate this Saturday, July 9, 2011 from 5 to 9 p.m.  There will be incredible art, food, drink and music. 15 selected artists will be exhibiting new work in the expanded new location. This Gala celebration features an installation by Hamlet Mateo.  This exhibition will remain in the gallery until August 6, 2011.   For more information contact:  Jill Plamann at 707.473-9600 or www.hammerfriar.com.

July 7, 2011 Posted by | Art | , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s Ring closes today and marks Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle

Ring aficionado Verna Parino, 94 years young, at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House prior to the June 14, 2011 performance of “Das Rheingold,” her 59th Ring cycle. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 As the curtain closes later today on San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it will mark Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle and I could not pass up the opportunity to talk with her about what makes a Ring memorable.  Parino, now a spry 94, first heard Wagner on the radio when she was about 16 and was mesmerized but it wasn’t until 1971, when she was 54, that she actually saw her first Ring cycle. 

She made up quickly for lost time.  In the past 40 years, she has travelled to 18 countries and seen 61 cycles in places as far flung as Shanghai and Adelaide, and has befriended Ring “trekkies” all over the world.  Not only did she embrace the Ring, she embraced opera as well and for years headed the Marin chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s Preview Program, retiring just last year.  I caught up with her in mid-June at Das Rheingold of Cycle 1, which marked Ring No. 59 for her, and again a week later at a Wagner Society of Northern California Ring symposium and she was full of exuberance for Wagner’s musical epic.

You’ve see so many Rings now, what type of production do you prefer and what makes it exciting for you?

The first thing to determine is if goes along with Wagner.  Something that is not Wagner, like last year’s Los Angeles Opera production, I didn’t like at all and I complained bitterly about that.  You can be innovative and modernize the setting but make it apply to what Wagner was writing about. 

And if you don’t react to the staging, it’s not a good production.  For me, if I don’t cry when Wotan has to punish his child, then it’s not a good production because as a parent it’s very painful to punish your child and you do cry.   When Speight Jenkins staged his first Ring at the Seattle Opera, I didn’t cry at that father having to punish his child and I didn’t think the production was very good.  With his later productions, I did cry and it all came together.

It’s Wagner’s music that tells you what’s going on, not always the words.  Here, at this Ring, I am trying something that is quite different for me—I am trying to find an ending in the music.  Wagner spent a lifetime searching for the answers to civilization’s problems.  He used the universal language of myth to portray man’s foibles and composed some of the most glorious music ever to represent the deepest emotional reactions of love and parental discipline.  But, after sixteen hours of the most monumental work of art ever envisioned, Wagner was still searching for an ending of how to govern the world.   Several solutions were dismissed and he finally gave us the answer through his music.  It’s the churning music, representing the convoluted story of mankind, that brings about a positive conclusion with a rebirth, a renewal, as indicated in the source materials of the Norse Poetic Edda.   The music itself is so exciting—it tells you that life is really hard and the answers are difficult to come by but that’s why I keep coming back time and time again trying to find the answer.  

Who are the heroes for you?  

Many people say that all the women represent the truth and that ‘love conquers all’ and that it’s Brünnhilde and that it’s the men who let the world down with their greed and negative attributes.   Brünnhilde wasn’t true to herself.  She goes after revenge and that’s not the answer.  Of course, Brünnhilde grew–she understands what has happened but she’s betrayed herself.  She finds out too late what the truth is and by then it’s all set in motion.  Wotan, well, he just accepts that he’s done it all wrong and that he can’t fix it any more. 

It’s interesting to analyze the characters because with each director, in each new production and portrayal, you might see something that has been added that makes sense to you.  I attended a talk last night and was struck with a realization about Alberich.  He was evil, and greedy, and power-driven but he admitted it and he was therefore true to himself, honest about his nature.  It is Wotan who pretends that he is righteous when he’s not–he is really driven by greed and takes advantage of other people and ultimately pays the price.  Siegmund is the only true hero, the only one who remains true to himself and to his love Sieglinde.   That was new to me that Siegmund was the true hero.  

And then, of course, you have to bring your own thoughts in too and ask yourself what you see in it all.  It depends on where you come from and we all have different backgrounds.  I’m Swedish and I married an Italian and I love German and I’ve had many adventures around the world.  Wherever we come from, we bring all that with us when we sit down and watch what’s on stage.  I just can’t wait to see it all unfold again.

What’s your overall impression of Francesca Zambello’s production, now that you’ve seen all three cycles?

Upon reflection today, thinking about the reasons this San Francisco Ring is such a positive success, and why people leave the Opera House smiling and saying it was great, most important is the fact that it is true to Wagner.  It was not some director’s concept of what he thought Wagner might have said.  It was not a ‘glitsey’ controversial, sensationalized staging for the sake of controversy or publicity.  Although Wagner used giants, dwarfs, gods, and dragons, they are symbols or archetypes of the people we know around about our worlds–our neighbors, even ourselves. We identify with them. We read about them in today’s news. 

The direction was humanized. Wotan was bored with his wife Fricka’s complaints so he picked up the newspaper and read. Then Fricka, bored with Wotan’s explanation of the extended view of world leadership, also picked up the newspaper and read. Francesca Zambello welcomed suggestions from the cast so that performers were part of a team, acting in ways that seemed normal.  It seemed as though there was a communal joy and presenting this Ring.

Wagner appreciated the natural world as illustrated many times in this epic story. The destruction of our environment—water, air, earth—has formed the basis for the sets of many productions (Cologne + Rhein River pollution, Berlin + junk yards, Arizona + Colorado River diversion, Oslo and Warsaw + barren trees).  In San Francisco’s Gotterdammerung there were piles of junked plastic bags that the Rheinmaidens picked up.

New questions to ponder:  Was Siegmund really a hero if he was willing to slay his bride and unborn child because they could not go with him to Valhalla?  Was Brünnhilde really a heroine, and really true to her inner self, if she was willing to conspire with Hagen for her husband’s death?   Is a yellow ‘sail’ that balloons into the air and finally dissolves into the river, a likely gold that can be stolen?  If Gutrune is so willing to jump into the king-size bed with Hagen, while waiting for Siegfried to return to marry her, should she participate so prominently in the finale supporting Brunnhilde’s memorial dedication?

And, this being a music-drama, the music itself was simply outstanding.  Leading the outstanding cast was Nina Stemme, today’s world-famous Brünnhilde. Returning to conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was Donald Runnicles, internationally acclaimed for his work with Wagner.  The music of the finale is positive, so that using again a child planting a small tree representing a new beginning, is logical. Wagner’s early revolutionary ideas took many philosophical turns. How should the world’s ending be portrayed?  ‘Tis a puzzlement’ that Wagnerians will continue to ponder.

July 3, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment