Protektor (Marek Najbrt, Czech Republic, 2009) Marek Najbrt's pomo period piece -- spiced by switches from color to monochrome, soundtracked DJ mashups, and other bendy tropes -- provides an elegant yet energetic reprise of some familiar themes. Rising Czech film actress Hana (Jana Plodkova) refuses to leave Prague despite the considerable danger posed by her (secret) Jewish identity. Husband Emil (Marek Daniel) is a popular radio host who struggles to protect her as he nonetheless rises in favor under the wartime Nazi "protectorate." But Hana proves uncontrollable as wife and (eventually boycotted) thespian, unable to keep her libido or boredom safely wrapped. And Emil's bosses soon enforce a cruel choice. Protektor is self-conscious, but also surprising -- the highly stylized presentation lends what could have played as an ordinary, earnest victim scenario an edge more seductive than distracting. Mon/26, Castro, 4:30 p.m.; Sat/31, 9:45 p.m., Roda. (Dennis Harvey)
A Small Act (Jennifer Arnold, United States, 2009) Ain't gonna lie -- I settled in to watch A Small Act thinking I'd be bored by a well-intentioned but manipulatively "uplifting" story. Boy, was I wrong. This is a complex, layered tale that features all the elements a compelling documentary requires, starting with its fascinating subjects. Born into poverty, Kenyan youth Chris Mburu was able to pursue his education thanks to Hilde Back, a Swedish woman who donated a few dollars a month to sponsor his education. Though they'd never met, he could not forgot the stranger who'd enabled him to finish high school (he ended up going to college, then Harvard Law School, and now has a prestigious job at the United Nations). Years later, Mburu named a foundation after Beck to give scholarships -- and hope for a future beyond teenage pregnancy and a life of back-breaking labor -- to Kenyan kids from his home village. Now, the joyful moment where Mburu and Beck meet for the first time comes pretty early in the film, which is when I realized that filmmaker Jennifer Arnold was going to dig way deeper with her doc than I originally suspected. First, there's a whole plot thread about three bright kids who are frantically studying to take Kenya's national exam (high marks would qualify them for one of Mburu's scholarships), plus one about Beck's life in Sweden (and her past as a Holocaust survivor), plus yet another about post-election unrest in Kenya that threatens not just the children we've met in the movie, but Mburu's own family. It all unfolds with the urgency of real life, and the message that emerges is summed up best by Mburu: "Education is a life and death issue." Sat/24, Castro, 11 a.m.; Sat/31, CineArts, noon; Aug 5, Roda, 4:30 p.m.; Aug 8, Rafael, noon. (Cheryl Eddy)
The 30th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 24-Aug 9 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison, Berk; CineArts@Palo Alto Square, 3000 El Camino Real Bldg Six, Palo Alto; and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 118 Fourth St, San Rafael. Tickets (most shows $11) are available by calling (415) 256-TIXX or visiting www.sfjff.org.