The truth hurts

Boxing, bigots, beauty, booze: Weighty themes permeate SF Jewish Film Festival docs

Brave Miss World

SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival broadens its scope this year with a theme — "Life Through a Jew(ish) Lens" — that allows it to encompass a wide spectrum of films. Though plenty of SFJFF's programs do specifically address Jewish religion and culture, some of the films I watched were only tangentially "Jew(ish)" — as in, they simply happened to be made by a Jewish filmmaker. For fans of quality programming, however, that's a moot point: SFJFF 2013 is a solid if eclectic festival, with a typically strong showing of documentaries well worth seeking out.

Previously seen locally at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's After Tiller is as timely as ever, with the advent of increasingly restrictive abortion legislation in states like Texas and North Carolina. This doc focuses on the four (yes, only four) doctors in America who are able to perform late-term abortions — all colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, assassinated in 2009 by a militant anti-abortionist.

The film highlights the struggles of what's inherently a deeply difficult job; even without sign-toting (and possibly gun-toting) protestors lurking outside their offices, and ever-shifting laws dictating the legality of their practices, the situations the doctors confront on a daily basis are harrowing. We sit in as couples make the painful decision to abort babies with "horrific fetal abnormalities;" a rape victim feels guilt and relief after terminating a most unwanted pregnancy; a 16-year-old Catholic girl in no position to raise a child worries that her decision to abort will haunt her forever; and a European woman who decides she can't handle another kid tries to buy her way into the procedure. The patients' faces aren't shown, but the doctors allow full access to their lives and emotions — heavy stuff.

Similarly devastating is Brave Miss World, Cecilia Peck's portrait of Israeli activist Linor Abargil, who survived a violent rape just weeks before she won the Miss World pageant in 1998. As Linor travels around the world on her mission to help others heal from their own sexual assaults, it becomes clear that she still has some lingering issues of her own to deal with. Taking action — working tirelessly to keep her rapist in prison; making a painful return trip to Milan, where the attack happened — only brings a certain amount of closure. Her emotional fragility manifests itself in a newfound embrace of religion (much to the confusion of her largely secular family, fiancé, and gay best friend), which is somewhat at odds with Brave Miss World's female-empowerment message. Still, though it gets a bit documentary-as-therapy, Brave Miss World offers a compelling look at one woman's determined quest to help others who've suffered similar traumas — urging them, through sheer force of personality, to speak out and become activists themselves.

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