The intractable dispute between Israelis and Palestinians is marked by several festival documentaries, including Shiri Tsur's On the Objection Front, a glowing portrayal of Israeli soldiers who announced in 2002 that they refused to serve any longer in the occupied territories. The sincerity of these ex-soldiers, fed up with civilian deaths and chasing rock-tossing kids, is impressive, and Tsur's film is compelling. Simone Bitton's Wall, by contrast, is like staring at one for 100 minutes. Bitton takes a literally concrete approach to the good idea of tracing the progress of the enormous security wall now under construction, holding her camera for minutes at a time on the wall's blocks being lowered into place. Scenes of Palestinians scrabbling through gaps in the barricades prove Bitton's minimalist anti-cinema can capture strong images, but most of the time the affected human beings stay off-screen.
If Israel isn't in a moral crisis of existential proportions you couldn't prove it by the fiction film Or, which has nothing to do with Palestine and everything to do with social entropy. Teenager Or (Dana Ivgy, excellent) struggles to survive amid Tel Aviv's plenty, trying to persuade her haggard mother to stop prostituting herself. Keren Yedaya directs everything in surveillance camera mode, the actors moving in and out of the frame as their lives unravel. Cruel social comment abounds -- Or and her mom's dark hair and skin contrast with the upscale Northern European features denoting Or's teacher, a jogger on the beach that Or combs for recyclables, and the condescending housewife who hires Mom as a cleaner. Or depicts an Israel riven by economic, racial, and class divisions.
The class struggle never ends -- a lesson the blacklisted screenwriters of 1940s Hollywood knew well. Three of the festival's films revive movies of that era, and a panel discussion this Sunday after a fourth film, the blacklist-memorializing The Front (1976), brings together some of the period's witnesses, including Norma Barzman, the 84-year-old co-author of The Locket (1946). No less than three flashbacks nest inside each other in The Locket, a Russian dollhouse of Freud and Marx, a must-see revival.
Veteran filmmaker Agnes Varda's Ydessa, the Bears, and Etc. documents an exhibition in Munich of early-20th-century photographs of people posing with their teddy bears. Cute and charming, the stills also record families soon to be swept away in the war to come. As such, they comprise a kind of substitute family album for the collector, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. Having filled two galleries with her thousand photos, she leaves a third gallery empty -- save for a kneeling Adolf Hitler, posed like a small boy at nap time. This startling apparition drives gallery attendees, and filmgoers, back to the teddies for another, less sentimental look. History is always hard, not sweet -- so should be art.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 21 through Aug. 8 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, the Mountain View Century Cinema 16, and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Tickets are $7-11 for regular programs, more for special programs; call 621-0556 or go to www.sfjff.org for complete info.