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Arts & Culture

17th Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival

The San Diego Jewish Film Festival kicks off its 17th year tonight at AMC La Jolla 12 Theatres. The festival showcases dozens of shorts, documentaries and features. It also allows audiences the opportunity to interact with filmmakers. One of the highlights of this years event is a three-film tribute to and Q&A with documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner. KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando has this look at his work.

Alan Berliner and his father Oscar in Nobody's Business

Nobodys Business is not a fight film in a conventional sense but the main characters do a lot of sparring.

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Alan: Tell me why?

Oscar: I wanna know the next question or the interview is over dont push me?

Thats filmmaker Alan Berliner and his cantankerous father Oscar.

Oscar: Testing, one, two, three, how long do you think this is gonna take?

Nobodys Business is a documentary about Oscar, who has to be one of the most reluctant subjects ever filmed.

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Oscar: Before we go any further let me tell you something, Im just an ordinary guy who lead an ordinary life, nothing to make a picture about.

Alan: Right now someone in the audience is watching saying why am I here watching this picture.

Oscar: Id be asking too. Who the hell cares about Oscar Berliner?

Well, Alan Berliner for one. Over his fathers repeated objections, Alan persists in making a film about his family history and proving that audiences will find his fathers life interesting. The lively exchange between father and son drives the film. Alan delivers a flurry of questions, while Oscar keeps dodging them.

The genial but dogged Alan keeps jabbing away. The result is a fascinating portrait. Its highly personal in that Alan confronts intimate issues that fathers and sons might normally avoid such as a painful divorce that left a deep impact on both men. But it also taps into themes that are universal by asking bigger questions about what defines a family and what children may inherit from their parents.

In his next film, Berliner inquires into a very simple thing a child receives from his parents

Alan: Why did you name me Alan?

Mother: Alan, youre being impossible. Because it was musically nice, all right?

In The Sweetest Sound , Berliner turns the camera on himself as he explores whats in a name.

Alan: In the 1950s, Alan was the 24th most popular name for boys in the United States, just ahead of Edward and behind Timothy. And the number one A name.

Berliners obsession with his name prompts him to call a meeting of Alan Berliners. He does an egosurf, which is searching for oneself on the internet, and ultimately locates a dozen Alan Berliners, including a French man whos also in the movie biz.

Alan: Thats the other filmmaker, the one in black. He even looks more like a filmmaker than I do.

Berliners wry humor buoys the film and prevents it from becoming an annoying ego trip. Plus Berliner never takes a superior tone. He always seems pleasantly baffled by life and eager to take on any quest for enlightenment. In The Sweetest Sound , he turns his personal inquiry into the arbitrary nature of naming into a broader exploration of identity. Does a name define who you are? How do you feel about sharing a name with others? Berliner checks out the National L.I.N.D.A. Convention as well as the Jim Smith Society.

My name is Jim Smith montage.

He even agonizes over what to name his film. But then Berliner likes to ponder things, and his inability to stop thinking about stuff may be one reason he has so much trouble falling asleep. Thats the subject of his most recent film, Wide Awake . Berliner wonders why he can't sleepis it because he spent years working late hours as a filmmaker? Or could it be because as a child his parents' nighttime arguments kept him up? Does he have trouble falling asleep because he's a night owl, or is he a night owl because he cant fall asleep? At one point, Berliner decides to do a coffee experiment to see what caffiene will do to him. The result is a high-speed tour of his office.

Alan: [speaking rapidly] the red boxes have archive footage, the orange has sound effects, the black

During this office tour, we see Berliners obsessive organizational techniques. His attention to detail and his compulsive need to collect everything from abandoned home movies to the insides of watches, all provide insight into what might be keeping him up at night. His need to organize things into neat boxes is in direct contradiction to what his films do. His films never tie things up in neat little packages. Instead, they start with simple things and expand to complex issues. Whether hes asking what makes a family a family or whats in a name, hes always trying to figure out what defines us as human beings. His clever, entertaining, and enlightening films invite us to engage in a dialogue with him. And he frequently raises questions that may keep viewers up late pondering the possibilities.

Alan: This ones for all you insomniacs out there. [music]

The San Diego Jewish Film Festival begins tonight at the AMC La Jolla Theaters. Beth Accomando will moderate a discussion with Alan Berliner this Sunday at 6pm. For more information go to the Festival's website at www.lfjcc.org.

For information on Berliner's work, go to his website www.alanberliner.com .