Unsurprisingly, Israeli films have been a big part of each San Francisco Jewish Film Festival program from the beginning. Yet despite that annual local sampling, occasional theatrical exports, and Oscar's devotion (seven Israeli features have been nominated for Best Foreign Film so far, including 2008's highway-robbery loser Waltz with Bashir), the general narrative of how that industry got where it is today has remained hazy. It clears up quite a bit after three and a half hours spent with Raphael Nadjari's A History of Israeli Cinema, the new two-part documentary screening at SFJFF.
Nadjari's choice of article is apt this is a history, not any attempt at creating "the" definitive one, and no doubt seasoned viewers will be left scratching their heads over an omission or eight. (The weirdest being M.I.A. Eytan Fox, of 2002's Yossi and Jagger, 2004's Walk on Water, and 2006's The Bubble.) But the myriad clips and commentators he assembles nonetheless piece together a cogent overview that will have you running to check DVD availabilities (usually in vain, alas).
Early features, before and after nationhood was declared in 1948, mostly sold the "Zionist utopia" that would unite millennia of Jewish diaspora, often using filmic language reminiscent of Soviet propagandist cinema. When audiences no longer needed that basic affirmation, more escapist forms emerged, notably the broad "bourekas" comedies and sentimental dramas depicting struggling ethnic groups (mostly Mizrahi Jews). Alongside these in the 1960s there developed a "New Sensitivity" school indebted to European art film that appealed to the intelligentsia if not the wider public. A gradual shift from collective to individual concerns affected everything from the omnipresent military dramas to dissenting political content, plus depictions of hitherto ignored or stereotyped figures whether Arab, gay, Georgian émigré, or simply female.
SFJFF 2009 continues this history with a sizable range of new Israeli screen work. Home-turf hit Lost Islands is a seriocomic family saga played to the big-hair beat of early '80s New Wave (come back, Flock of Seagulls!). The excellent Zion and His Brother provides darker domestic strife amidst Haifa's meanest housing-project streets. Coming highly recommended for a good time is A Matter of Size, which is pretty much The Full Monty (1997) of sumo wrestling. (Dennis Harvey)
A HISTORY OF ISRAELI CINEMA
Aug 1, 11:45 a.m., CineArts
Aug 8, 11:30 a.m., JCCSF