If anyone still thinks comic books — or graphic novels — are strictly child’s play, a few minutes with Parisian cartoonist Joann Sfar will erase that misconception.
San Francisco filmmaker Sam Ball’s evocative and marvelous documentary, “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” introduces us to the iconoclastic Jewish artist and filmmaker who topped France’s bestseller list with “The Rabbi’s Cat.”
Inspired by his grandmother’s tales of life in Algeria in the 1920s, Sfar set his talking cat saga in a neighborhood where Jewish, Arab and French traditions coexisted and overlapped.
“There’s a line in our film from Joann: ‘I wanted to show Jewish kids that their ancestors came from North Africa,’ which is true of about half of France’s Jews, ‘and I wanted to remind Muslim kids that there were Jews in North Africa, and they more or less got along for centuries,’” said Ball. “There’s no reason to have nostalgia because it wasn’t idyllic, but there is something that has been lost.”
“Joann Sfar Draws From Memory” screens in the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on March 3 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
Ball, whose numerous short documentaries include a moody portrait of New York Jewish cartoonist Ben Katchor, “Pleasures of Urban Decay” (2000), and “A Bridge of Books” (2001) about the National Yiddish Book Center, was born in France and speaks fluent French. He says it’s misleading to view France as an anti-Semitic country, despite the anti-Jewish attacks of recent years.
“France, I think, has a complicated relationship toward ethnicity in general,” he says. “I don’t think Jews are unique in that. But there’s a great fascination in mainstream French culture with anything that has to do with former French colonies, and ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ fits that craving.”
Some of Sfar’s appeal — and certainly his sensitivity — stem from the fact that his father is Algerian and his mother is French, which makes him Sephardic-Ashkenazi.
Ball served as associate director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival from 1996 to 2000, and started the New Jewish Filmmaking Project for teenagers and young adults — which he continues to produce through his company, Citizen Film — with the festival the following year. His list of current projects includes a film about “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry,” the column Yosl and Hannah Mlotek wrote for The Jewish Daiy Forward for many years.
All of which is to say that Ball is an expert on films about Jewish culture and Jewish artists, and resists the tried and trite.
“I think it’s refreshing to see depictions of Jews that aren’t about gefilte fish or the Holocaust or Yiddishkeit, as much as I love Yiddishkeit,” he said. “This is a movie about the creative process. That’s probably the central preoccupation of the film: How do you take what you’ve been given, both in terms of what’s been handed down to you and your own lived experience? It’s through the act of creation that you grapple with that.”
When Ball embarked on “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” he discovered Sfar’s vast illustrated diaries filled with the everyday incidents in his young children’s lives.
“Joann told me that there’s something Chagall said that really resonates with him: ‘If you want to keep people safe, you put them in paintings.’ For Joann, he puts them in comic books.”