It’s not the most glamorous Oscar category, but the nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject often make for informative, stirring and, sometimes, surprisingly entertaining viewing. Delivering all of those goods is “When We Were Bullies,” a doc in which San Francisco filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt examines his participation in a 1960s childhood incident involving a brutal attack on a classmate.
The 36-minute film, which also deals with fear and complicity, is part of this year’s Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary program and opens in the Bay Area Friday.
Rosenblatt, who has been making films for decades, is known for skillfully constructed, emotionally relatable cinematic collages, some of them only a few minutes long and more than a few gem-caliber. Combining found footage, archival footage, voice-over, photographs, music and animation, his films reflect both personal journeys and universal truths. Topics include mundane aspects of the lives of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators; the workings of grief; the effects of singer Anita Bryant’s 1970s anti-gay-rights crusade; the filmmaker’s childhood fear of Jesus Christ; and what an everyday house cat might be dreaming.
In his acclaimed “The Smell of Burning Ants” (1994), Rosenblatt looks at “cruelties that boys perpetuate and endure.” A clip from that still relevant film, along with an uncanny coincidence, prompted Rosenblatt to make “When We Were Bullies,” which documents a recent visit to his childhood school in Brooklyn and his investigation into why his 10-year-old self behaved so cruelly.
“The response has been amazing,” says Rosenblatt, describing how audiences and industry folk alike have praised the film, which has screened at major film festivals and at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater. The accolades include an Academy Award nomination.
“I’m so thrilled,” Rosenblatt adds. “It came from peers,” he says, referring to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary branch. “Whatever happens from here is gravy.”
The film follows Rosenblatt from the Bay Area to Brooklyn and presents conversations he has with former fifth-grade classmates — we see them in a group photo, their young faces sometimes playfully brought to life by animator Jeremy Rourke — about the bullying incident. We learn the details: On a Friday in 1965, students, Rosenblatt included, ganged up on an awkward boy named Dick, accusing him of a petty misdeed and punched and spat on him. The kids got caught, and their teacher, Mrs. Bromberg, scolded them. She called them “animals.”
Questioned by Rosenblatt more than 50 years later, some don’t remember the incident at all, while others recall it vividly and regretfully.
Rosenblatt, in his voice-over, asks self-examining questions and ponders human nature. Is he making this film to atone for his fifth-grade actions? “Are we hard-wired to detect vulnerability?”
He also addresses the childhood death of his brother — which former classmates, to his surprise, remember — and the emotional pain it caused him.
He visits Mrs. Bromberg, who is 92 when he interviews her. She offers thoughts on how children operate. “Children have a sixth sense,” she says, about who is vulnerable, and vulnerable kids get picked on.
A story she shares about a bullying-related personal tragedy quietly enriches the film.
Rosenblatt additionally shares his evolving plan for how he will present Dick to viewers. He didn’t interview Dick for the film, though initially he planned to, and he blurred out his face from photographs. The film is “not about Dick, it is about us,” says Rosenblatt — a sentiment that shapes the film’s thoughtful ending.
Rosenblatt says the film has resonated with viewers, noting that people seem to relate to its story of bullying and complicity. He also mentions the film’s relevance in these days following four years of a political administration that was run by a bully. What happened is still affecting us.
A downer this film isn’t, however.
“People might be surprised to know how easy the film is to watch,” Rosenblatt says. “The tone has a levity. It’s a delicate balance.”
He achieves that balance skillfully. An effective storyteller, he keeps the serious material appropriately disturbing while, at other points, prompts smiles. The latter moments include a klutzy attempt by Rosenblatt and friend Richard Silberg to climb over the gate of their old public school. Later, 92-year-old Mrs. Bromberg candidly comments on the film Rosenblatt is shooting. “It could be tedious to watch,” she suggests (not true).
The film took several years to come together, says Rosenblatt, who disputes the notion that short films are small potatoes cinema compared to feature films. Shorts shouldn’t be seen as “stepping stones” for up-and-coming filmmakers seeking grander pastures, he says.
Has he ever seriously considered making a feature-length movie?
“I’ve had that ambition,” he says, “and for this film, I thought I had enough material to make a feature. But somehow, my films always get shorter and end up their organic length.”
As for filmmakers he admires, Rosenblatt cites documentarians Alan Berliner (“First Cousin Once Removed”) and Viktor Kossakovsky (“Gunda”) and, in the narrative arena, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson.
His own interest in filmmaking began during his college years, when Rosenblatt earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology — he worked as a psychotherapist for a spell — but also took a class in Super 8. “I was putting more time into the film class than into my counseling work,” says Rosenblatt. Since then, his day jobs have included teaching cinema at local institutions, including San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art Institute, and serving as the program director for the past 12 years of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
As for living in San Francisco when most people in his industry reside in Los Angeles or New York, Rosenblatt acknowledges that it’s uncommon. But “while the Bay Area has its problems,” he says, it’s not a bad place to be. At the same time, he shares the sadness that so many local film lovers are feeling in regard to the demise of arthouses like the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the future of the Castro Theatre.
“When We Were Bullies” — part of the “Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary” lineup — will be showing, along with the four other nominated short docs, on local screens beginning Friday, Feb. 25. Venues include the Opera Plaza Cinema, Roxie Theater, and Rafael Theater.
IF YOU GO
“When We Were Bullies” (part of Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary program)
Where: Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F.
Rafael Theater, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael
Tickets: $9 to $13
(415) 771-0183, www.landmarktheatres.com
(415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com
(415) 454-1222, www.rafaelfilm.cafilm.org