Recent Comments


    Queer Documentaries and Shorts to See at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    The 43rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will take place July 20–August 6. This year’s program will open with Remembering Gene Wilder, about the comic actor, and will close with Bella!, about Bella Abzug’s legacy. In between, gay Bay Area filmmaker H.P. Mendoza will screen his new film, The Secret Art of Human Flight, and LGBTQ advocate and activist Lisa Edelstein will be honored with the Freedom of Expression award. The festival will also include three queer-themed documentaries as well as a trio of gay and lesbian shorts. Here is a rundown of what to catch at this year’s fest.

    Among the non-fiction selections, one of the highlights this year is the documentary Queen of the Deuce,which profiles the formidable Chelly Wilson, a Greek-Jewish woman who owned and operated a handful of porno theaters in New York City in the 1970s–1980s. (She lived above the Eros theater, which showed gay male porn films.)

    Wilson was larger than life: a tomboy back in Greece, she bristled at being married off as a young woman. She left her young daughter with a friend so she could come to America, where she became a successful businesswoman. Returning to Greece, she retrieved her daughter and eventually started working in the film business. At first she showed Greek films, but she later moved into soft- and hardcore adult films, which were extremely lucrative. She also was queer, having relationships with several women, and creating a chosen family, despite being married to a man. Queen of the Deuce uses photographs, home movie footage, animation, and marvelous anecdotes by Chelly’s daughters, grandchildren, and associates to present her remarkable life. This is a fun doc about a fascinating woman. 

    Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy

    A disappointing entry is Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy that plays out like a tedious DVD commentary track. The documentary, by Nancy Buirski, features a few interesting nuggets, including Jon Voight’s screen test, to discussions about the film’s rating controversy, as well as observations about how gay Jewish director John Schlesinger’s feelings of not fitting in informed his work.

    However, much of this film is a slog with lengthy digressions about Schlesinger’s childhood, his other films, other films of the era, as well as film clips and photographs of New York in the late 1960s–early 1970s that are all meant to contextualize the few salient points Buirski makes about how the British filmmaker viewed American culture and society. Dustin Hoffman’s remarks are limited to a previously recorded interview about how he studied a guy in New York to “find” his character Ratso Rizzo’s limp. The point that Midnight Cowboy was something counterculture that became mainstream—it was a critical and commercial success—is made repeatedly, diluting its impact with each pronouncement.

    There are brief and mostly pointless appearances by Edmund White, Brian DePalma, and Michael Childers (Schlesinger’s husband). The film emphasizes that Schlesinger made a drama about the tenderness between two men, and boldly featured gay content to two scenes, one of which is discussed at length here. The impact Midnight Cowboy had is important, but this haphazardly assembled and unfocused film feels irrelevant. 

    Nelly and Nadine

    The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival also gives moviegoers another chance to see Nelly and Nadine, a moving documentary that uncovers the hidden history and “double lives” of its titular subjects: Nelly Mousset-Vos and Nadine Hwang. They met in the Ravensbrück concentration camp and began a romance that continued after the war.

    Filmmaker Magnus Gertten follows Nelly’s granddaughter, Sylvie, as she pieces together the story through letters, diaries, photographs, Super-8 films, and interviews with folks who knew the couple. This lyrical and inspiring film recounts Nelly and Nadine’s experiences during the war, as well as their hope—and will—to both survive and be together. 

    Diving In

    Among the shorts, the amusing Diving In has Rachel (Maria Dizzia) and Yael (Gloria Bess) coupling up one night. While it is said that the eyes are windows to the soul, this short proves that another opening can reveal much about a person. What transpires is as startling as it is funny—and it is best left for viewers to discover. The leads handle the unusual situation with aplomb, which is why Diving In is so much fun.

    I Miss You at Synagogue

    I Missed You at Synagogue has teenager Carmel (Nir Knaan) learning that his classmates Michal (Neomi Harari) and Ido (Ido Tako) have broken up. This gives him the opportunity to get close to Ido, whom he secretly loves. But can a relationship develop? Writer/director Hanan Brandes builds the tension as the youths smoke a cigarette and wrestle on Carmel’s bed before something happens that may change everything. This is a slight short, but it captures the feelings of a same-sex crush with authenticity. 

    Arava depicts the title character (Batèl Zaharaa Mann) spending the weekend—she’s in rehab—with her best friend Tzipi (Swell Ariel Or). They decide to go to Tzfat to “talk to saints in their graves” as they believe it is good luck; both have bad energy. They hitchhike to Tzfat and meet Haim (Itamar Rotschild), who takes them to his apartment, feeds them, and lets them crash. Arava shows how Tzipi impacts everyone she encounters, but it is how Arava processes her romantic feelings towards her friend that gives this short its power.

    © 2023 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Published on July 13, 2023