Sustaining Australian democracy through adult and community education

January 24, 2020

I have written a discussion paper on the role that Australian adult and community education (ACE) providers can play in sustaining Australian democracy and supporting civil society.

The ACE sector provides a great deal of value to support Australian democracy. Given the importance of education to democratic functioning, the ACE sector’s expertise in education and training of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups – particularly through foundation skills of language, literacy and numeracy – means that it has a unique role in ensuring that Australian democracy thrives. Read the paper summary here and the full paper (PDF) here.


Film review of Jojo Rabbit

December 26, 2019

(This review of “Jojo Rabbit” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 19 December 2019.)

Directed and written by Taika Waititi, based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens; starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson

**********

What do you get when you cross iconic Jewish film-maker Mel Brooks (The Producers) with the late comic actor and film-maker Charlie Chaplin? If the year is 2019 and the film is Jojo Rabbit, it’s Jewish-Maori film director Taika David Waititi, who is also known as Taika Cohen. A 2017 “New Zealander of the Year” and self-styled “Polynesian Jew”, Waititi’s film credits include the New Zealand classic Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Marvel comics blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok.

But Jojo Rabbit is something different. Waititi took a great artistic risk in casting himself as Hitler (yes, you read that correctly) in this black satiric comedy set in Nazi Germany’s final years.

Waititi’s character is the imaginary friend of 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (played by a wide-eyed Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), as the finale of the war slowly closes around them.

Jojo has been inculcated into becoming a fierce young Nazi, although his unwillingness to kill a rabbit marks him out as unsuitable for Nazi brutality. His world is thrown into disarray when he discovers that his mother (father is away at war, unheard of for some time) has hidden Elsa, a young Jewish woman (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in the family’s attic. Thus Jojo is forced to confront his prejudices and shield both Elsa and his mother.

Based on the novel Caging Skies by American-New Zealand writer Christine Leunens, whose Belgian grandfather spent time in a German labour camp, we have to cast back to Chaplin’s 1941 film The Great Dictator – in which he played both a Jewish barber in the ghetto and “Adenoid Hynkel” – to find an equivalent.

The supporting role casting of JoJo Rabbit is inspired: Sam Rockwell plays a Nazi captain, and Rebel Wilson plays a Nazi camp counsellor. Shooting in Prague – not exactly typical German architecture – assists in giving the film an offbeat, skewed feel. Although unlikely to reach the classic status of Chaplin, Taika Waititi offers one of the most creative films of the year.

Read The Times of Israel‘s list of 13 Jewish actors who have previously played Nazis on screen, starting with Moe Howard in 1940, and including Jack Benny, Conrad Veidt (Casablanca), Otto Preminger, Peter Sellers, Mel Brooks, Joel Grey and Harvey Keitel.


Film review of Marriage Story

December 26, 2019

(This film review of “Marriage Story” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 November 2019)

Directed and written by Noam Baumbach; starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Julie Hagerty

Noah Baumbach writes and directs character-driven dramatic films, the type that helped to change American movie-making in the late 1960s and 1970s. Baumbach carries the tradition of those break-through directors (think Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet), and has been called the “spiritual heir” to Woody Allen, “joking in earnest about the big stuff.”

Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) famously said that Baumbach reminded him “of why I got into movies in the first place. It was for revenge.” Some of Baumbach’s best work has been autobiographical, such as “The Squid and the Whale”. Now add Baumbach’s latest, “Marriage Story”, which has just opened in Australian cinemas, and will screen via Netflix from mid-December.

Netflix put “Marriage Story” in cinemas in November to make it eligible for the Oscars (it’s now on Netflix). And Oscar-worthy it is, being tipped for best film, script, director, actor and actress nominations. It’s that good.

It’s also not easy to watch. For “Marriage Story” is not boy-meets-girl cute and live happily-ever-after; rather the opposite. The story begins in New York City where experimental theatre director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is about to split up from his actress wife Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), who is heading to Los Angeles – where she grew up and her extended family lives – to star in a pilot TV show. The problem is, they have an eight year old adorable son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), over whom they will fight for most of the film – yes, it’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” (Streep vs. Hoffman) 40 years on. With Henry moving to LA with Nicole (“lots of space”, characters keep saying), Charlie must travel there to be with him, providing an undercurrent of New York/Los Angeles and theatre/television tension.

“Marriage Story” starts pleasantly and poetically enough, with voice-over monologues by Charlie and Nicole, each listing the things they love about each other. It’s one of the most affecting openings to a relationship film I have seen in a long time. It’s also a misdirection to the viewer, as the next scene – the two of them with a marriage counsellor mediator – makes clear. Nicole is driving their separation, and it’s likely that many men and women will react differently both to this scene and to the film.

In the lead roles, Driver and Johansson deliver extraordinary performances, enhanced by some of the sharpest – and intentionally hilarious – minor characters, all of whom “own” the screen when present. Three divorce lawyers – Laura Dern as Nicole’s lawyer, and Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as Charlie’s lawyers – appear in tightly scripted and neatly paced scenes you can easily imagine pored over by film students in years to come. Julie Hagerty plays Johansson’s mother, exhibiting the comedy skills she developed in her “Airplane!” (1980) debut role. Screen aficionados will also note the presence of Wallace Shawn, one of the world’s top Jewish character actors (“The Princess Bride”, “Clueless”), as one of Charlie’s New York theatre troupe.

Baumbach remains one of film’s best writers of contemporary “drama with a comedy edge”, with lines such as this one, delivered by Liotta’s character: “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best. Divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” Pretty much captures it.

The film does not emphasise its Jewish roots, but they are significant: “Marriage Story” is based on the dissolution of the marriage of Baumbach (who is Jewish) to Jennifer Jason Leigh (also Jewish), played by Johansson (also Jewish). The Adam Driver character’s family background has more to do with Driver’s own family story (mid-west dysfunctional) than Baumbach’s (New York Jewish intellectual), but it’s easy to see how Driver’s character stands in for Baumbach’s own. The result is a complex, brave, affecting, profound, unsettling and often very funny drama, my pick for one of the best of the year.


The long tail of Australian private for-profit VET scandal

November 6, 2019

Some years ago, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson published a ground-breaking book entitled The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand. In it, Anderson deftly analysed the impact of the Internet and the digital world on traditional business models.

But Anderson’s introduction of the term “the long tail” has taken on another popular meaning – how certain events continue to resonate in economics or society, long after the initial impact has disappeared.

The much-abused, now (thankfully) closed Australian Government loan scheme for vocational education and training (VET) students, VET FEE-HELP, is a prime example of how the long tail continues to affect us.

The latest manifestation of the long tail came last week, with the news that a now-closed private for-profit Australian VET provider, Unique International College, had “been fined $4.2 million after it was found to have acted unconscionably by enrolling people from remote NSW communities, including a teenager with learning conditions, into online courses costing nearly $27,000 by offering them free laptops.”

According to the Sydney Morning Herald article (31 October 2019): “In six separate cases, it was found Unique International College failed to inform the prospective students of the cost of the course they were signing up to, did not tell them they would incur a debt and did not give them copies of the agreement they had signed.”

The conduct “’involved the exploitation of an uneducated Indigenous person with no understanding of what he was agreeing to in return for a laptop which was worth substantially less than the debt which was being incurred,’ Justice Nye Perram found in his Federal Court judgment.”

The article continues: “Unique made a net after tax profit of $8.2 million in 2014 and $33.8 million in 2015, the ACCC told the court. Justice Perram found Unique acted deliberately in remote communities on a number of occasions, including Walgett in October 2014, Wagga Wagga in March 2015 and Bourke in June 2015 but ‘was ignorant’ to the fact it was contravening consumer law.”

A year and a half ago, the Sydney Morning Herald described VET FEE-HELP (logo pictured below) as “the biggest public policy scandal in Australian history: the systematic rorting of the vocational education and training system.” At times, provider profit margins reached a staggering 80% of income. All of this continues to prove how government funding of privately delivered VET is fraught with potential difficulties.

Although the VET FEE-HELP scheme finished at the end of 2016, almost three years later we are still faced with court cases that continue to uncover the abuses undertaken by for-profit education providers who found ways to rort the system of government payments.

And, sadly, there is another “long tail” to this not-yet-finished story: the replacement Commonwealth Government scheme, VET Student Loans, has significantly under-spent. As TAFE Directors Australia CEO, Craig Robertson wrote on Monday of this week (4 November): “At the same time VET FEE-HELP was scrapped in favour of VET Student Loans, cutting the flow of about $1.5bn per annum in legitimate loans to something like $300m for VET Student Loans. States and territories, let alone decent providers, were left high and dry.”

(Full disclosure: I participated, as a representative of Community Colleges Australia and not-for-profit community-based VET providers, in the Australian Government’s VET Student Loans Stakeholder Reference Group as that program was being established.)


Jewish films at Melbourne International Film Festival

August 25, 2019

(This preview of the Melbourne International Film Festival -MIFF- appears in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 25 July 2019.)

Now in its 68th year, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) continues its record as one of Australia’s leading cultural icons with innovative and challenging films. This year’s Festival (1-18 August) highlighted an under-rated Jewish actor and a European Jewish director, and presented a divergent snapshot of how Jewish life continues to pervade contemporary international film.

MIFF featured what is surely Australia’s first “Jeff Goldblum Marathon” – 7 films and 14 hours of straight Jeff Goldblum programming overnight on 9 August: “Thor: Ragnarok”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, “The Fly”, “Earth Girls Are Easy”, “Independence Day”, “Vibes” and “The Tall Guy”. Goldblum comes with a strong pedigree: he was born in 1952, the same year as MIFF started. After an Orthodox upbringing in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York City to study with famed Jewish acting coach Stanford Meisner, who has taught everyone from Gregory Peck to Sydney Pollack to Jon Voight to Tom Cruise and Christoph Waltz.

By latest count, Goldblum has played Jewish characters at least 22 times (3 times as himself): 2 of the most important of these characters appear at MIFF: David Levinson the technology expert in “Independence Day”, and Seth Brundle in “The Fly” – the “very image of the Jewish nerd, a scientist with poor social skills.” Goldblum’s Jewish persona is so strong that “Tablet” magazine listed his complete film oeuvre as the “75th best Jewish film” ever.

Few directors have marked a reputation on dramatic Holocaust film as Polish film-maker Agnieszka Holland, one of MIFF three “Directors in Focus”. Born in Warsaw in 1949 to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Holland has brought an unusual perspective to Polish-Jewish history. Her nine films at MIFF include her three Holocaust classics. “Angry Harvest” – 1985 Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee – tells the chilling story of a woman on the run from the Nazis who finds shelter with a simple farmer, who develops a sexual fascination with her. “Europa Europa” – winner of the 1990 Best Foreign Language Golden Globe – dramatises the life of German-born Solomon Perel, who survives the war through Kristallnacht, the German invasion of Poland, residence in a Russian orphanage and – ultimately and incredibly – by acting as Russian-German translator for a German army unit. The film celebrates Jewish survival by showing the real Solomon Perel in Israel singing “Hine Ma Tov”, a scene that foreshadowed the final images of real-life survivors in “Schindler’s List” (1993). “In Darkness” – also a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, 2012 – is a realistic tale of heroism of a Polish worker who shelters a group of Jewish refugees in the sewers of Lvov.

Other highlights of the Festival included four unusual Jewish documentaries. British film-maker Nick Broomfield’s “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” poetically details the love affair between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra that resulted in “So Long, Marianne” and other iconic songs. Broomfield brings a unique perspective: in 1968, he travelled to Hydra, met and befriended Cohen’s lover and muse, Marianne.

“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary”, by Jewish film director Ben Berman, tells a bizarre story of how he shot a documentary on the “Freddy Krueger of Comedy”, John Edward Szeles,

The Israeli documentary team of Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam has again stepped out far from home in their documentary “Leftover Women”, examining the stigmatisation of unmarried young women in China. Other Israeli films included “Parparim”, a short comedy-drama Israeli film about butterflies; “Working Woman”, an Israeli drama feature about sexual harassment; and “Shhhh”, an short Israeli comedy-horror film about putting a baby to sleep.

In “It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story”, tells the story of how two Jewish refugees from Germany – Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff – founded the New York-based legendary jazz label Blue Note Records.

The comedy-drama “Benjamin”, by gay British-Jewish director Simon Amstell, is not a documentary, but could well have been: the main character is “a depressed film-maker with a penchant for men” – much like Amstell himself.

Other films of note: “Smoke Between Trees”, an Australian drama starring Jewish actor Tiriel Mora (“Frontline” and “The Castle”), brother of film director Philippe Mora; the 1969 Czech classic “The Cremator”, set in Nazi-occupied Prague; and Jewish director Ira Sachs’ “Frankie”.

MIFF also premiered possibly the biggest film about Hollywood to be released in many years: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”. Set in a hedonistic 1960s Los Angeles, the film features lots of real-life and made-up Jewish characters, including Roman Polanski (played by Polish actor Rafał Zawierucha) and fictional agent Marvin Schwarzs played by Al Pacino.

And speaking of Hollywood: MIFF also featured “Untouchable”, a doco about “the fall of Hollywood producing titan Harvey Weinstein is told through the testimony of the women he allegedly targeted”.


Never Look Away film review

June 30, 2019

(This film review of “Never Look Away” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 June 2019.)

Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer and Saskia Rosendahl

*****

This opening of the German language film “Never Look Away” is a major event, bringing a sweeping historical view of German life scanning a three decade period from the late 1930s to the 1960s.

“Never Look Away” is a loose dramatisation of the life of contemporary German visual artist Gerhard Richter (1932-) – named Kurt Barnert in the film, acted by Tom Schilling (“Oh Boy”, “Before the Fall”). But German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) has much higher goals than a simple biopic for his massive and epic (188 minute) film: he wants to illustrate many of the profound events of this tumultuous period of German history: the Nazi racial exclusion laws and eugenics, the Second World War and subsequent life in a Germany divided between east and west.

Using the refracted experience of an artist provides a personal – and highly visual – scope to what could otherwise be a mundane retelling of events. The film opens in Dresden with a brilliant scene that recreates the traveling art exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), in which the Nazi regime attempted to ridicule German modernist art on the grounds of it being “un-German”, Jewish or Communist. A wide-eyed five year old Kurt attends the exhibition with his eccentric and creative aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, star of Cate Shortland’s film “Lore”), and is impressed.

As the Nazi grip on power tightens, Elisabeth is diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalised and eventually euthanised under the orders of gynaecology professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a loyal member of the Nazi SS medical corps. The scenes in Professor Seeband’s hospital are harrowing, and his confrontation with Elisabeth a devastating illustration of Nazi cruelty to its own citizens. The cunning Seeband survives both the war and incarceration by the occupying Russian army, while remaining secretly loyal to his Nazi principles. Chillingly, Seeband later returns to the film’s story through a set of coincidences also based on real life.

The war devastates much of Kurt’s family, but he slowly makes his way in the post-war East German art world, producing made-to-order socialist realist murals of industrial workers. He also meets and weds the beautiful fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), despite the serious misgivings of her parents. Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany just as the Berlin Wall goes up, and Kurt lands a position at the Düsseldorf art academy, where he is taught by an enigmatic professor clearly based on the famous German sculptor, installation artist and art theoretician Joseph Beuys. Director von Donnersmarck neatly captures the artistic, cultural and political differences between the two German states, giving the film an extraordinary depth of insight into that period.

“Never Look Away” has received many plaudits, including two nominations at the most recent Academy Awards – for best foreign language film and best cinematography – along with strong audience support at this month’s Sydney Film Festival, a rapturous reception at the Venice Film Festival and an audience award at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

The film is not perfect: a gas chamber scene in which aunt Elisabeth is murdered jars with its brightly lit explicit presentation – how many films have included similar scenes, and how little the scene actually tells us (have a look at The Son of Saul for a better use of these images). But few recent films have included such an historic – and spectacularly well-presented – epic sweep of modern history. Almost no current dramatic films have the courage to tackle so much, and to give the audience such rich questions to ponder: what is the place of art in society, how do we find the hidden meaning of art, what is the true meaning of ideology, how do we survive during ages of political upheaval and – neatly and fully believably – how can love and affection triumph over adversity.


Film review of Where Hands Touch

June 9, 2019

(This film review of “Where Hands Touch” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 March 2019.)

Directed and written by Amma Asante; starring Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston and Tom Sweet

*****

Few film directors specialise in portraying inter-racial couples in historic contexts.  British filmmaker Amma Asante – who is black and born in Ghana – has, first with the award-winning “Belle” (2013), which told the true story of an 18th century enslaved West Indian woman who married a British navy officer and entered high society. Asante followed with “United Kingdom” (2016), another true story of an inter-racial couple in the immediate post Second World War period: an heir to the throne of African country Bechuanaland meets and marries a white British woman.

In “Where Hands Touch” – Asante’s third inter-racial romantic outing – the director turns her attention away from her home territory of British race relations to one far more fraught: Germany in the last years of the Second World War. She has chosen a small but fascinating part of history: children of colour who were born and raised in Nazi Germany, counter-posing the story to the Holocaust and persecution of Jews.

The film is ambitious, well-produced, earnest, well-meaning and attempts a high degree of sensitivity to its subject. Location shooting in Belgium and the Ile of Man capture mid-20th century Germany. However, screening the Holocaust – even as a tangential theme – is fraught even when film-makers are steeped in knowledge, which Asante is not.

The film starts in 1944 Nazi Germany: 15 year old Leyna Shlegel (Amandla Stenberg, from “The Hate You Give”) has a German mother, Kerstin, played by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (“Candy”, “Somersault”). Her absent black African father was a French soldier, and Leyna has grown up – uncomfortably – in Germany with dark skin. Kerstin decides to move the family (including her fully German younger son) from their Rhineland provincial city to Berlin, thinking it will be easier for her bi-racial daughter.

Bad move. Berlin – as the headquarters of the German state – is, if anything worse, and Leyna is systematically excluded from school and almost all aspects of public life. Using family connections, Kerstin tries to ensure that Leyna is not jailed or sterilised (or both): the Nazi state has some awareness of not wanting to offend the German parents of “non Aryans”, but it’s not much.

Leyna is forced to start factory work with her mother. Through a series of coincidences, Leyna meets – and yes – falls in love with Lutz (British actor George MacKay), an active and rising member of the Hitler youth corps, whose father is a rising Nazi administrator. What future for these two young lovers?

To its credit, “Where Hands Touch” shows the ultimate destination of minorities in Nazi Germany: Leyna does end up in a concentration camp, dehumanised and abused. Director Asante has countered criticism of her film and been at pains to state that she has not tried to diminish the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, but to illustrate the experience of Romani people, disabled people and other outcasts under Nazi rule. In that purpose she achieves some success. The film tries to raise the questions: what exactly is identity, national and racial, and where do they cross over?

Historically, parts of “Where Hands Touch” don’t add up: it’s unlikely – as this film depicts – that Jews were still wandering around openly in Berlin in 1944 wearing yellow stars. The plot contains too many coincidences, and there’s an element of emotional “clunkiness” to how the story unfolds.

Dramatic acting – particularly by Stenberg and Cornish – is strong, but not enough to overcome an over-ambitious and underwritten film.