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San Francisco?s Jewish Leftist Tradition Reemerges in Documentary

By Michael Fox

"I'm very interested in ambiguity, and this is not the central thrust of most documentaries," Ralph Arlyck says. "I'm more interested in what people think than in facts."

Arlyck's latest, Following Sean , is a thoughtful and, yes, ambiguous portrait of two families of secular, assimilated and intermarried Jews. The personal essay style film also contemplates the links and gulfs between two generations and two coasts, and between the sixties and today.

"I don't know if it's Jewish to question, but I've gone to some meetings and seders of groups [such as] New Jewish Agenda, and I was blown away by how much questioning there was," the New York-based filmmaker says. "I'm interested in doing that. I'm not interested in laying out a thesis at the beginning and then driving towards one point."

The Brooklyn-born Arlyck lived in San Francisco's Haight-Asbury in the sixties while taking graduate film classes. He turned his camera on the 4-year-old boy who lived upstairs, and the resulting black-and-white short--in which Sean mentioned smoking pot, epitomizing the laissez-faire spirit, rampant irresponsibility and unbridled dreams of the hippie generation--achieved international notoriety.

Thirty years later, Arlyck set out with his camera to discover what became of Sean. The marvelously provocative result, Following Sean .

"One of the central things that I try to do in the film is make the distinction between actors-doers and observers," Arlyck explains. "My mother was deeply involved in all sorts of causes--zoning, League of Women Voters, she tried to ban hunting in Rockland County. That comes out of some nexus of Judaism and progressive radicalism."

Sean's Jewish grandmother, Hon Brown, was also an activist and emerges as one of the most interesting people in the movie. She and her late husband, Archie, were involved in the local Communist party; he was also a union organizer. One of the unexpected pleasures of Following Sean is its understated reminder of the role that Jews played in San Francisco's progressive history.

"One thing that strikes me is that Hon is the absolute center of that family. Is she Emma Goldman or Molly Goldberg? She's both. She has that strong sense of social justice," Arlyck explains, while noting that in the film Hon always seems to be in the kitchen.

"She said to Arch at some point, when he had to go underground, 'I'm not doing this. You've got to shape up and be part of this family.' With all her dedication to the cause, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and whatever else, she never lost that strong sense of family. To me, that's Jewish."

While Sean's parents split up and his adolescence was somewhat chaotic, Arlyck was a model of stability. He moved back to New York after grad school, and married a French Catholic girl with whom he has two adult children. He's made several well-regarded documentaries, the best known of which was Current Events , and has taught film production at several colleges.

Following Sean is a tender inquiry not only into how Sean and his family turned out--Sean married a Russian Jew, incidentally--but how Arlyck's family turned out differently. So Arlyck is a participant in his film, not just a chronicler.

"What could be more characteristic of filmmaking than being a watcher, rather than a doer?" he muses. "That's a longstanding debate in journalism: Do you record or do you help people? I felt that tension a lot in the sixties. Obviously there were some Jews in the sixties--Jerry Rubin--who thought that they needed to be actors. For most people, it was a combination. You'd be active from time to time, then you'd go back to your daily life."

As in Following Sean , it's clear that the soft-spoken Arlyck is speaking about--and revealing--himself. But he goes ahead and makes it explicit.

"That's something that's always troubled me. I've always wondered about, worried about, the degree to which you ought to be participating, and recording, and just living your life."

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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