Sacramento Jewish Film Festival
Crest Theatre1013 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
At 13, the annual Sacramento Jewish Film Festival has reached its bar mitzvah year, which means it now has to get up in front of everybody, read from the Torah (herewith obeying all 613 of its laws) and say, “Today I am a man.” Maybe at the end it will dance a hora. Probably it will come away with some cash and gifts. Meanwhile, here’s what’s playing:
In Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor’s A Matter of Size (2009), a corpulent Israeli salad-bar chef (Itzik Cohen) gets kicked out of his tyrannical diet group for gaining weight. Then he gets fired for being “unpresentable” to customers. Then, with help from a Japanese master of sorts (Togo Igawa), he enlists his three other overweight pals (Dvir Benedek, Shmulik Cohen and Alon Dahan) to start a sumo-wrestling club. High jinks ensue, of course, along with plus-sized self-acceptance and even some honest romance. Handsomely shot, appealingly acted and wryly funny where it could be mawkishly overbearing, Maymon and Tadmor’s movie has a way of calmly putting prejudice in perspective, trading up from shame to humility and softening what some might see as a standard Israeli take-me-or-leave-me attitude into something more universal and humane. It’s sort of like The Full Monty, but in Hebrew. And, well, fuller.
Director María Victoria Menis’ The Camera Obscura (2008) is another story about self-image, this one set among Argentine Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century. Mirta Bogdasarian stars as a woman who was born on a gangplank in Buenos Aires to parents fleeing Russian pogroms and now lives in domestic rural obscurity among her gardens, her children, her gentle melancholic longings and the occasional lyrical animated interlude. The movie wants to characterize her as homely, and certainly she is so retiring that we worry her poetic soul will go unnoticed—that is, until a chance encounter with a surrealistically inclined itinerant French photographer (Patrick Dell’Isola) puts our fears to rest. A delicate tale, and maybe a shade too slight, it plays like a drowsy, understated dream, with Marcelo Moguilevsky’s music adding savory accents that linger in the heart and mind.
Max Minsky and Me (2007), adapted by Holly-Jane Rahlens from her own novel for director Anna Justice, introduces us to another bespectacled misfit girl (Zoe Moore), who in this case lives in Germany and neglects her bat mitzvah preparations to practice basketball so she can play in a tournament officiated by the dreamboat prince of Luxembourg (Kay Becker). Her reluctant coach is a cute classmate (Emil Reinke), who convinces her to do his homework in exchange for the court tutelage. And her long-suffering mother (Adriana Altaras) is not pleased. The film is thick with predictable plot and mannered technique—quick dollies in, cutesy whip pans, fast motion—and its performances have a few awkward moments, but Justice marshals these potential shortcomings commendably; clearly, audience-friendliness is her top priority. And so, for all its flaws, this is more authentic than typical coming-of-age fare, Jewish or otherwise.
But the best of this year’s fest is Aviva Kempner’s documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009), quite appropriately tagged as the tale of “the most famous woman in America you’ve never heard of.” That would be the protofeminist media mogul Gertrude Berg, inventor of the sitcom and writer and star of The Goldbergs. Really, it’s OK not to have heard of Berg, because Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg and ’70s sitcom impresario Norman Lear know who she is, and they’ll tell you all about why she mattered. Of course, that’s also easy to glean from the Goldbergs clips on offer here, collectively an abbreviated but still affecting portrait of plump, lovely, self-styled elegance, of strength and warmth and maternal benevolence, presiding over all the minor but satisfying entertainments lurking within ethnic urban community life. It was Berg to whom Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly deferred as America’s real rescuer from the Great Depression. Certainly she endured that national trial, along with the encroachments of Nazism and the blacklist—the latter of which ruined her co-star Philip Loeb and drove him to suicide—with great aplomb.
So the overall sense here is one of responsibility to cultural heritage, but also of celebration. Turning 13 never was easy, but good role models always help.