Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Family History at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Sometimes as family historians, we are fortunate enough to have documents our family members left behind, and we invariably wonder how we can use them to help tell our family story.

Longtime San Francisco genealogist Judy Baston was able to preview some films from the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 19-August 6) and told me that among the lineup are a quartet of documentaries that take as their theme family history, secrets, and the significance of what is left behind:  photographs, home movies, a memoir, letters, and even a family business in the old country.

In The Flat, Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger sifts through his grandmother’s apartment after her death and finds old German newspaper front pages with the story of a Nazi leader’s visit to Palestine in the 1930's.

British filmmaker Daniel Edelstyn’s discovery of his grandmother’s tattered journal takes him to their ancestral town in Ukraine and a vodka distillery that once belonged to her family, in How to Reestablish a Vodka Empire.

For Argentinian filmmaker Gaston Solnicki, hundreds of hours of home movie footage of his grandparents (survivors from Lodz) and other family members become the film Papirosen.

And Israeli documentarian David Fisher’s Six Million and One begins with his discovery of the diary that his father Joseph kept during his time in a labor camp in Austria.

Of this quartet, to Judy, The Flat and Six Million and One are the two stand-out films.  Along with the newspaper articles detailing the trip to Mandate Palestine of Nazi official Leopold Von Mildenstein, accompanied by German Zionist leaders Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, filmmaker Goldfinger found caches of old letters sent between the Von Mildensteins and the Tuchlers and tried to come to grips with how his grandparents and the man who was Adolph Eichmann’s predecessor in the SS could have had what appeared to be a cordial--and even warm--relationship.  The film includes a trip to Austria in which Goldfinger’s mother meets Von Mildenstein’s daughter, both of whom are trying to fit their own personal perceptions of their parents into the broader historical context.  (July 26, 3:50 p.m., Castro Theater, San Francisco; July 29,  4:25 p.m., Roda Theater, Berkeley; August 2, 4:20 p.m., Cinearts Theater, Palo Alto)

In Six Million and One it is also a trip to Austria--scene of the former Gusen work camp detailed in Joseph Fisher’s diary--that provides the film its strongest scenes.   It is not the visit itself that makes the film unique and important, however, but rather our opportunity to eavesdrop on the exchanges between four of Joseph’s children who make the trip:  David, his two brothers, and a sister. They each bring very different perceptions--of their father, of the Shoah, of their relationship to history--to the trip, and it is the exchange--sometimes hesitant, sometimes angry, eventually heartfelt--between the second-generation members of this family that makes this a “don’t miss” film for family historians.  (July 21, 12:00 noon, Castro Theater, San Francisco; July 28, 11:30 a.m., Cinearts Theater, Palo Alto; July 29, 12:00 noon, Roda Theater, Berkeley; August 4, 12:00 noon, Rafael Theater, San Rafael)

The festival will have showings around the Bay Area, in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, San Rafael, and Palo Alto.  For a complete schedule of showings, visit http://www.sfjff.org/.

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