News Column

SF Jewish Film Festival: Alan Berliner honored

July 25, 2013


July 25--Ultimately, movies are a reflection of ourselves -- our dreams, our fantasies, our concerns, our history. And because films are stuck in the time in which they are made, they also become memories.

"I'm a big believer in windows and mirrors," documentarian Alan Berliner said. "We're looking through to something outside of ourselves. But then, I want the screen to turn from a window to a mirror, and I want every viewer to sit there and also at a certain point reflect upon their own lives, their own memories and the memories of family members around them."

Berliner has made documentaries about families in the first half of the 20th century ("The Family Album," 1985), his grandfather ("Intimate Stranger," 1991), his father ("Nobody's Business") and even other people named Alan Berliner ("The Sweetest Sound," 2001), but in getting to know his subjects, Berliner gets to know more of himself.

His personal approach to his craft has influenced other filmmakers, and after more than a quarter century of work, Berliner is being honored with San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's distinctive Freedom of Expression Award, an honor that has gone previously to Elliott Gould and Kirk Douglas, among others. The 33rd annual festival opens Thursday night and runs through Aug. 12.

Berliner will receive the award Monday at the Castro at a screening of his newest film, "First Cousin Once Removed," which chronicles the slow decline of a relative with Alzheimer's disease. There also will be an onstage conversation with the filmmaker and a clip reel of his work.

"First Cousin Once Removed," which will make its broadcast premiere on HBO on Sept. 23, is a new and painful subject for Berliner -- the loss of memory. He chronicles the last years of one of his mentors: poet, professor and translator Edwin Honig.

"This film on many, many different levels was about the hardest film I ever tried," Berliner said during a phone conversation from his office in New York. "It's maybe as close as I'll ever get in a lifetime of work devoted to shedding light on what it means to be human -- to get at human frailty, the human condition. ... The role that memory plays in our lives, the construction of identity, mortality, love and family, and family relationships."

It's a subject that hits Berliner closer to home than usual. His grandfather and father, as well as Honig, died from complications of Alzheimer's. For a man whose work is wrapped up in memory, Berliner naturally worries about his own future.

"Do the math," Berliner said. "I'm not going to say I live in fear of that every moment of my life, but no one is immune. ... I'm glad to have made this while I still have my marbles."

Some might say filming a relative as he degenerates is cruel, but Berliner's intent is to celebrate Honig. After several fiction films in the past few years have shed light on dementia -- Sarah Polley's "Away from Her," Michael Haneke's "Amour" and the current "Still Mine" starring James Cromwell and Genevi ve Bujold -- documentaries add an unflinching intimacy.

"(Honig) taught me that memory is the glue of life," Berliner said. "When you lose it, the flip side is that memory is the scissor to life. Memory is how we translate experience -- to translate the past into the present and interpolate that into a conception of our future.

"Take memory away, and you're left with a perpetual, open-ended present with occasional wisps of a fleeting horizon of the past."

But Honig, despite his obvious memory loss, shows flashes of his brilliance. Berliner liked to engage in wordplay with his cousin, and Honig seems to enjoy the repartee.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall," Berliner says.

Without missing a beat, Honig responds with: "You be camera, and I'll be all."

Berliner laughed at the memory.

"The way I see it, Edwin never stopped being a poet until the day he died," Berliner said. The film "is very much a mirror in a very raw and honest way."

First Cousin Once Removed: 6:25 p.m. Monday. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. (Also Aug. 3 at the California Theatre in Berkeley, Aug. 4 at the CineArts at Palo Alto Square, Aug. 11 at Smith Rafael Film Center); Alan Berliner will accept the festival's Freedom of Expression award prior to the screening in San Francisco.

33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: Through Aug. 12 in various locations. (415) 621-0523.

G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen


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