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Jewish Film Festival brings stories to Berkeley

By Peter Crimmins
Saturday July 28, 2001

In a fictitiously constructed 1937 newsreel, footage of the 10th annual Academy Awards featuring the brand-new category of Best Actress in a Supporting Role is placed alongside footage of a military rally of Germany’s Third Reich overseen by Adolf Hitler, not yet perceived as a global threat. 

Watching this opening sequence in “One of the Hollywood Ten,” featured this weekend in the Jewish Film Festival, one is struck by the contrast of the American film industry’s self-congratulatory glamour and Europe’s approaching genocide. With 64 years of hindsight, how can we relate these two news items? And placed, here, in a based-on-a-true-story fiction movie?  

“One of the Hollywood Ten” is not alone at this year’s Jewish Film Festival in trying to make “soft” issues – like storytelling and art – significant among international threats to life and country, and meaningful in the face of a storyteller’s worst enemy: disinterest. 

The Jewish Film Festival, having completed its weeklong run at San Francisco’s Castro Theater, is coming to Berkeley for 6 days beginning today. Because the festival’s traditional East Bay home had been the dearly departed UC Theater, it has moved to Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Campus – a proper screening venue frequently used by campus groups to show first-run movies for cash-strapped students. 

“One of the Hollywood Ten” will be presented on the festival’s first Berkeley date. It is the story of Herbert Biberman (played by Jeff Goldblum), a Hollywood director married to Gale Sondergaard (Greta Scachi), winner of the 1937 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Like Marlon Brando and Richard Gere after her, Sondergaard used her moment at the podium for political activism, delivering a speech denouncing fascism in Europe. 

Ten years later both husband and wife were targeted by the HUAC communist hunts, a political melee whose Red Scare hysteria was tinged with anti-Semitism. The film, however, still feels labored in its post-war context in that what’s being fought for are some abstract ideas of liberty and the careers of a few over-paid Hollywood elitists. 

The movie finds its dramatic punch in its second half, when the black-listed Biberman sets out to make “Salt of the Earth,” a movie about the labor struggles of a community of Hispanic miners (Goldblum has the misfortune of delivering the film’s most politically precious line, “This film…is freedom”). To halt production, a HUAC agent threatens the film crew with gunfire. It’s a real shoot-‘em-up standoff, giving "One of the Hollywood Ten" the dramatically grand conflict it was looking for all along. 

Black-listed or not, Hollywood likes a big finish no matter where it comes from. A young Israeli filmmaker Gur Bentwich has made a surprisingly compelling movie, “Total Love,” out of a loose, meandering story that has little in the way of political agendas or climactic shootouts. It screens Sunday. Bentwich directs with easy graceful this story of a small group of friends who concoct a recreational drug, a la Ecstasy, they call TLV, or Total Love. The surprise ingredient, one they cannot duplicate, is – perhaps like real love – a happy accident. The batch of TLV is divided among the friends and they split off to different parts of the world. 

The film’s action is never hurried but there is constant movement from Israel to Amsterdam to India as the boys try to find the remaining doses of TLV, the next international trance-rave party, and an evasive, globe-trotting girl who inspires their ardor. The liquid drug is smuggled, fittingly, in the soles of a pair of Nikes.  

What’s refreshing about this quiet gem of a movie is the absence of heavy pontificating or cinematic grandstanding. Recreational drug use is regarded as no more than that – recreational. And Bentwich even playfully diffuses the tension of a nighttime raid on an Indian prison. The energy is low-key but constant, happy but unsatisfied, and in love but rarely loved. As such it poignantly portrays young adults simultaneously jaded and hopeful. 

The festival is honoring filmmaker Alan Berliner with a three-part retrospective of his hourlong personal documentaries, “Intimate Stranger,” “Nobody’s Business” (both screening on Sunday), and “The Sweetest Sound” (July 30). The challenge Berliner assumed in making these films is turning very personal material – his grandfather, his father, and an investigation of his own name – into films interesting and accessible to anyone outside his immediate family. But even inside his immediately family he is not guaranteed an audience. When Berliner interviews his own father, Oscar, about the history of their family’s Polish roots he is met with cranky disinterest.  

“Just because it’s interesting to you,” Oscar tells his son in “Nobody’s Business, it doesn’t mean it’s interesting to anyone else. I don’t care about this.” 

Berliner’s brilliant editorial touch turns the ornery lemon into funny, ironic lemonade that transforms Berliner-specific trivia into subtle insights to very basic aspects of the human condition. 

“The specificity in the film is really a Trojan Horse within which all this range of issue about what it means to be family,” said Berliner from his home in New York City. “What it means to be a child, to be a parent, a cousin, what’s the contract we have with each other, the meaning of a life lived. Love, hate, sex…all that stuff is swirling through this ostensible portrait of this man.” 

Berliner’s newest film, “The Sweetest Sound,” is about a subject even more personal: his own name, which he discovered is personal but hardly private. He found 12 other men named Alan Berliner and invited them over for dinner and through intelligent musings, a sense of humor, and a bag of editing tricks he is able to make the subject of ‘Alan Berliner’ both appealing and revelatory. 

“I’m committed to reinventing the wheel every time,” he said. “It makes it harder to make these films, because I’m trying to give the viewer something fresh. Something that they can feel the energy of the storytelling and feel the energy of the filmic vocabulary at the same time they are following the story.” For more information on these and the 20 other Jewish Film Festival programs at Wheeler Auditorium, the festival can be reached online at www.sfijff.org. 

Similarly looking for a big climax is “Blue and White in Red Square,” a documentary about the journey of the Young Isreali Philharmonic to Moscow, being screened free of charge on Wednesday.  

Many of the orchestra’s young musicians were born in Moscow, and this is not only their first opportunity to return (somewhat apprehensively for their unhappy memories of being Jewish in Moscow), but also a once in a lifetime chance to perform in the Grand Hall, the site of Russia’s renowned musical heritage. 

But the grand finale of the film isn’t their tentative homecoming. It is eleven youth orchestras from around the world – hundreds of musicians – coming together on an enormous stage constructed in historic Red Square under the baton of Russian Maestro Valerie Gergeyev to perform Tchaikowsky’s “1812 Overture” and Mussoreky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” There was much pre-concert fretting about how Gergeyev would mold the massive assembly of musicians into a respectable performance. We can’t judge from the brief music selections the film offers, but the dramatic aerial camera shots certainly make it look good.