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Hot Docs and Family Secrets Abound at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

My Father and the Man in Black

Jonathan Hoff's "My Father and the Man in Black" plays in this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Rising costs be damned–a film festival cold war is underway in San Francisco, and accordingly, the 33rd edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which opened yesterday, hosts more films than ever. The fest has apparently been stockpiling docs and gives Indiefest's DocFest a run for its money in terms of sheer quantity, with nearly half of its feature-length slate given over to the form. Often these take shape as family histories, a subgenre that SFJFF has done as much as anyone to support over the years.

The most immediately visible of the nonfiction selection, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, an engrossing doc that pivots around the boxer's conversion to Islam and conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, is strangely not about a Jewish subject, but it is made by one. Paul Saltzman's The Last White Knight, which captures the director's own conversations with avowed Klansman Delay de la Beck, is, but dwells equally on race and civil rights-era America. At the tail end of roughly the same era, American Commune, the rare commune doc without a dark coda, makes its case with plenty of time-and-place footage. Comedian Katie Halper's Commie Camp, comes to a similarly positive conclusion about Kinderland, a Jewish-run summer camp once blasted by Rush Limbaugh as a communist breeding ground.

American Jerusalem: Jews and the Building of San Francisco devotes itself to the building of another community, examining the role of big-name Jews like Adolph Sutro and Levi Strauss in the history of our own fair city. Another sort of building gets due inspection in Jason Hutt's Sukkah City, a doc about a series of teams competing to construct new visions of the traditional hut, which is used for worship during one of the less-celebrated Jewish holiday festivals, Sukkot. The heart-rending abortion polemic After Tiller, which played SFIFF this year and won accolades at Sundance, gets another screening in the festival's doc lineup as well. If you haven't seen it, now's your chance!

Perhaps also aware of its competition with this weekend's J-Pop Festival, this years SFJFF has stepped up its fan-worthy offerings. Fans of "Sweet Caroline" singer Neil Diamond probably won't be surprised by any of the revelations unveiled in Neil Diamond: Solitary Man, but they'll enjoy copious footage of "The Jewish Elvis" in his element, including interviews with the man himself. If anything can surprise them after Walk the Line, Johnny Cash fans may be a bit more gobsmacked to learn the nasty truth about his drug habit in My Father and the Man in Black, Jonathan Hoff's immersive rediscovery of his late father, Cash's one time manager Saul Holiff. For music fans of a more modern stripe, the fest is presenting a special screening of the Amy Winehouse concert film, The Day She Came to Dingle, which shares a glimpse at the reservoir of promise, talent, and sweetness held by the late singer before she became Daily Mail headline fodder.

Though they may be fewer in number, SFJFF's narrative offerings are nothing to snort at either. Two of the festival's lead offerings, Ziad Doueiri's The Attack and Jill Soloway's locally-sourced Afternoon Delight, will be coming to theaters soon, but you can see them first in the upcoming week. The Attack, a terrorism film for those who like more than a bit of politics with their celluloid, has already been banned in the Arab League for what censors there consider a "failure to demonize Israel." Afternoon Delight is lighter fare, and only risks offending the male man-child population, but stands to draw them in anyway with its dead-on portrayal of mid-thirties ennui and undeniably sexy turn by Juno Temple as a stripper/sex worker (a character constructed with a good deal of advice from local Kinkster Lorelei Lee). Girls' Alex Karpovsky, who we interviewed earlier this week, will also be in town on Saturday for a Q&A following his enjoyably low-key roadtripper Red Flag.

The scant 40 minutes of Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnum's understated relationship piece Aya may leave some viewers wanting, but they provide a rare chance to glimpse the versatility and depth of Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, who, like fellow Dane Mads Mikkleson, is mostly known on our shores for his role as a Bond villain. The festival also trades on a number of tried-and-true classics this year, including Annie, An American Tail, and the 2005 Nathan Lane-starring realization of Mel Brooks' The Producers.