An ancient joke has it that an American Jew visits a Tokyo synagogue and gets told by the rabbi there, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” At the local road-show screening of the 26th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, running Aug. 5-7 at the Smith Rafael Film Center, three films concern a Jewish community few know about: the Ethiopian Jews.
Radu Mihaileanu’s Live and Become is fiction based on fact. In 1984, Israel conducted “Operation Moses,” airlifting thousands of Ethiopian Jews from African refugee camps. Supposedly, these persecuted Jews were the children of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. When the black Jews arrived in the Holy Land, they faced racism and police pressure. There were numerous suicides, and a scandal when it turned out that some of the Ethiopians had posed as Jewish to be saved. A family of French secular Jews living in Israel adopt the Ethiopian boy “Shlomo” (Solomon), not knowing the child’s birth mother had counseled him to disguise himself as a Jew.
Shlomo, played by three actors in youth and adulthood, goes through social chaos, everything from being shot by Palestinians to being roughed up by pimps. Renouncing the girl who loves him, he goes to Paris to become a doctor. There’s a lot of movie here. Some would say too much.
In contrast, David Gavro’s documentary Sisai is a short and to-the-point documentary about the director’s younger brother and how he returned to Africa to find his birth father. Also screening is Motherless Haya by Haya Zelka, a first-person account of growing up Ethiopian in the town of Ramala.
The rest of the three-day fest presents a dozen other films ranging from nostalgia to current events. The recently restored The Living Orphan is one of the few feature films shot in Yiddish, in this case in New York City’s Lower East Side, 1939. More up-to-date is 5 Days, a much-recommended documentary about how the Israeli Defense Forces evicted thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza last August. Eva Mozes Kor, a young victim of the infamous White Angel of Auschwitz, documents how she is Forgiving Dr. Mengele.
Amos Gitai’s feature Free Zone follows an American girl ditching her fiancé in Jordan; Natalie Portman plays the runaway bride in question. A more pliable actress than Portman stars in The Tribe, by San Francisco’s Tiffany Shlain; it’s five eons of Jewish history as acted by a Barbie doll. Funny, she doesn’t look Jewish.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival travels to San Rafael Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 5-7, with 15 films in tow. 1118 Fourth St. For details, call 415.454.1222 or go to www.cafilm.org.
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