Movies

Highlighting the documentaries at this year’s BJFF

The African-American and Jewish entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. is the subject of Samuel D. Pollard’s “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.”
Boston Jewish Film Festival
The African-American and Jewish entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. is the subject of Samuel D. Pollard’s “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.”

The documentaries in the 30th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival (Nov. 7-19) range far and wide in their diversity of subjects. From the great African-American and Jewish entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. to the African-American and Jewish blues duo Satan and Adam, from a Bedouin woman trying to reconnect with her roots to a Jewish woman searching for artworks by her great-grandfather, they explore universal themes of memory, identity, empathy, and justice.

“I’m colored, Jewish, and Puerto Rican — when I move into a neighborhood I wipe it out!,” the subject of Samuel D. Pollard’s “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” jokingly tells an audience. It screens Wednesday, at 7 p.m., at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The director will be available for a question-and-answer session; preceding the screening will be a live musical performance by Cara Campanelli and Alex Olsen. Later screenings are Saturday, at 9 p.m., at the JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater, Newton; Nov. 11, at 1 p.m., at NewBridge on the Charles, Dedham; and Nov. 13, at 7 p.m., Maynard Fine Arts, Maynard. 

But there’s a dark side to the humor. As Pollard shows, Davis Jr., spent a lifetime trying to fit in: Fellow soldiers beat him up and urinated on him while he served in the Army during World War II. As part of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin’s Rat Pack, he was often the butt of their racial humor. And by supporting Richard Nixon during his 1972 reelection campaign Davis alienated many in his own community. Throughout all this he danced, sang, and acted onstage and screen with a relentless energy matched by his appetite for extravagant spending, alcohol, drugs, and fast living. 

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Sammy Davis Jr. was black and Jewish. So are the duo in V. Scott Balcerek’s “Satan & Adam.” It screens Nov. 17, 8 p.m. Somerville Theatre, followed by a Q&A and live performance by Chris “Stovall” Brown and subject Adam Gussow; and Nov. 18, at 11:30 a.m., at the Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a Q&A with Gussow. The Jewish half of the combo, Gussow, found himself wandering through Harlem in 1986 after a devastating breakup with a girlfriend. He came across an African-American blues singer and guitarist playing in the street. He went by the name of Satan (a.k.a. Sterling Magee, a legendary sideman for Etta James, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and others). Moved by Satan’s electrifying performance, Gussow took a harmonica out of his pocket and played along. 

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Thus was born the blues act Satan and Adam, and the disparate pair went from the street to festivals, international touring, TV appearances, and hit recordings. For a while their partnership flourished despite the country’s ongoing racial tensions and Satan’s increasingly erratic moods and behavior. Balcerek follows them for 23 years and records their story of racial harmony and the power of music.

Stephane Kaas and Rutger Lemm’s “Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story” screens Nov. 15, at 6:30 p.m., at the Brattle Theatre. The directors will participate in a Q&A. It also screens Nov. 17, at 6:30 p.m., at the JCC Riemer-Goldstein Theater. The documentary demonstrates the power of fiction to ameliorate suffering. The film’s namesake Israeli writer is beloved for surreal short stories that are puckish: sardonic but good-humored. So is the writer himself — except when he relates how he first started writing while in the army, where a close friend committed suicide, or when he discusses how he combines fiction with reality to ward off despair. 

The two directors, big fans of Keret, who try at times to emulate their subject’s style, elucidate the point that the art of lying can be used to spread goodness and not just incite evil.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki’s great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki, employed his art to preserve the world of Jewish society and culture in prewar Poland. His paintings draw on a spirit reminiscent of the stories of Sholem Aleichem and the canvases of Marc Chagall. He was murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. “Chasing Portraits” screens Nov. 18, at 2:30 p.m., at the Museum of Fine Arts. The director will participate in a Q&A moderated by Jan Darsa, of the educational nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves.  Many of Moshe Rynecki’s works survive — some in the possession of Elizabeth’s father, Alex , himself a Holocaust survivor. Others are scattered in collections around the world. 

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Determined to preserve as much of her great-grandfather’s legacy as possible, Rynecki creates an online gallery of extant paintings and travels to Poland, Israel, Canada, and other places to find more. She also tries to enlist the help of her father, who resists summoning up traumatic memories of hiding from the Nazis with his family during the war. 

Rana Abu Fraiha queries her own father about a difficult memory in “In Her Footsteps.” It screens Nov. 13, at 6:15 p.m., at the Coolidge. The director and her sister, Yasmeen Abu Fraiha, a subject of the film, will participate in a discussion moderated by Lisa M. Lynch, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Brandeis University.

In the Bedouin village where they once lived, their father’s female cousin was murdered by a family member in “an honor killing.” Fraiha tries to learn the truth about this dark secret but can’t coax any details from her father. It was incidents like these that convinced Fraiha’s mother that the family must move away from their home village to a nearby, well-to-do Jewish town. There her daughters could be safe, free of gender stereotypes and sexist restraints. 

Now Fraiha’s mother is dying of cancer, compelling the family to recall the past — which Fraiha brings to life with touching home videos — and assess what has been gained and lost by cutting themselves off from their culture in favor of the freedom and constraints of their adopted home. These conflicts come to a head when the family must deal with a stinging rebuke — the town refuses to allow their mother to be buried in the local cemetery because she is Muslim.

Go to www.bostonjfilm.org

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.