Teens Document Life, Love For Jewish Film Festival

By FRED DODSWORTH Special to the Planet
Friday July 25, 2003

There’s a Yiddish saying, “If you want to understand Jews, look at Christians.” 

The opposite is also true—an examination of Judaism can illuminate other cultures. For the next six days, Saturday, July 26 through Thursday, July 31, wonderfully divergent views of life through a Jewish lens will be shown on the UC Berkeley campus as the 23rd annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival comes to Wheeler Auditorium.  

In addition to the more than 30 films and videos ranging from high-end feature films to Indie shorts and documentaries from around the world, this year’s festival offers the world premiere of “Four Short Films About Love,” a candid collection of tales about being young and Jewish in the Bay Area, created by 10 Bay Area teens.  

Produced by Sam Ball of the New Jewish Filmmaker Project, this is the second in a series of “do it yourself” documentaries for Bay Area teenagers that the festival has funded and premiered. 

“For teenagers ... it’s really an amazing way, not only to dive into what’s possible in documentary film making [but] it’s a great opportunity to just dive into Jewish culture as it intersects with all these other cultures around the world,” said Ball. “That’s not something you really get in Hollywood. We’re using the medium to just spark a dialogue and to have the process be part of the product.  

“What’s particularly interesting about working with teenagers is they’re at a time in their life when some of the things we take for granted as adults—like ‘Who am I?’—are still very new and very raw. If you give them the opportunity to talk about those things you get material that’s really fresh and really interesting,” said Ball. 

“Our film [‘Four Short Films About Love’] is about love, but through a Jewish lens,” said Hannah Lesser, a 17-year-old Berkeley High student. “Even though it’s through a Jewish lens, that doesn’t mean that other people couldn’t enjoy it. Anything I say or do or think, is Jewish. Especially anything I think. It’s in the way that I’ve been taught, the way I’ve learned to see things. I guess I could say the same thing [about being a woman]. I would definitely say that anything I see, I see through a ‘Berkeley’ lens.” 

“Looking back I think a lot of people didn’t realize how open they were letting themselves be,” said Leah Whitman-Salkin, a 16-year-old from Kensington. “I think it freaked a lot of people out for so many people to see such a private time in our lives, in such private relationships. I’m kind of interested in seeing the relations of people and the reaction of myself in the audience as people see it.”  

“It took a lot out of us because it’s really honest,” agreed Lesser. “You have to be honest because you want people who are watching the movie to get the gist of it. You can’t keep secrets.”  

Edward Baraona, a 17-year-old from West Oakland, is currently participating in the making of next year’s documentary. An aspiring filmmaker, he also is struggling to integrate the disparate elements of his personal history.  

“My great-grandmother, she’s Jewish,” said Baraona. “Before the Holocaust, in ‘37, she came to America [from Berlin, Germany] looking for refuge, but the United States would not accept her so she was sent back. She came back again, but this time to Latin America. She found refuge in El Salvador. She had her child in ‘39, my grandmother, and she had her daughter in ‘63, my mother. Then they moved to the states and my mom married a native and indigenous man, he grew up in Mexico but he’s actually Peruvian, and they had me. So I have a bunch of mixes in me. I have native Spanish. I have Hebrew blood and I have indigenous blood. I come from different heritages and I’ve inherited all these different cultures but I wouldn’t say I’m unique because there are so many kids just like me.” 

“One of the things we explore is how Jewish identity intersects with other identities,” Ball said. “Sometimes in the same person. That reflects the breadth of Jewish culture. Throw any 10 Jews in a room and you’ll have more than 10 cultures from around the world represented. What it means to be a Jew is to ask yourself a series of questions about who you are, about your values, about your sense of place in the world. Where do I belong? And to have the kind of agility to project yourself in several places at once. To project yourself into the past and the future simultaneously is a very Jewish thing.” 

Laura Salazar, a self-identified Chilean-Jew, lives in East Oakland and studies film at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. She was a member of the Jewish Film Festival’s first documentary project two years ago. 

“How do you define yourself? Like what do you relate to? How have you been raised? Many factors create a personality. It’s deep stuff,” Salazar said, laughing. “We would talk about and it would go on a long time. ‘You can’t be both in all of this stuff.’ That’s what they say. That’s what I’ve heard a lot of. Sometimes people’s feelings would get hurt. It was powerful but I came away from it feeling pretty positive. Being of mixed heritage, I can see both sides, it’s kind of like a portal. I think you can be both. I’m both. I’m more than that actually.” 

“Four Short Films About Love” premieres at Wheeler Auditorium Thursday, July 31, at 8:15 p.m. For a complete schedule of all the films showing in the 23rd annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival or information about tickets and prices, phone (925) 275-9490 or visit the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on the Web at www.sfjff.org.