Sydney Film Festival 2011 preview of Jewish theme films

(The following article appeared, in a slightly different form, in the Sydney edition of the Australian Jewish News on 2nd June 2011.)

This year’s Sydney Film Festival features three very different documentaries that reflect widely varying aspects of the modern Jewish experience. These films range broadly from South Africa to the USA to Russia to Israel.

The Jewish highlight in the festival is the world premiere of Sydney Jewish film-maker Mitzi Goldman’s feature-length documentary “A Common Purpose”.  This film features South African-born Jewish lawyer and human rights activist Andrea Durbach, who has lived in Sydney since 1989 and is currently Associate Professor at UNSW School of Law.  The film charts Durbach’s return to South Africa to re-live the “Upington 25” court case and trial: in 1985, during one of the brutal final periods of Apartheid, a young black policeman was killed, and 25 black residents of Upington (a mostly white town near the Kalahari Desert) were convicted of his murder, with fourteen of them sentenced to death.  At the time, this was the most extensive murder trial which had taken place in South Africa.  Durbach successfully represented the defendants in a case that lasted for years, during which a key member of the defence team, Anton Lubowski, was assassinated.

The film includes extensive documentary footage taken at the time, along with interviews with Durbach, Independent journalist John Carlin and the many of those accused.  The film also neatly compares footage and photos taken in 1985 with the present day, giving a neat emotional closure to the events portrayed.  “A Common Purpose” unfolds almost like a John Grisham thriller, and the high level of nobility, integrity and character of the participants make viewing it a truly memorable and moving experience.  The film incorporates haunting music from the Mark Ginsburg Quartet, and its closing credits include thanks to numerous members of the Sydney Jewish community.  Mitzi Goldman will be an official Festival guest.

One of the truisms of film is that the best comedies are usually based on real pain, and the feature-length documentary “Exporting Raymond” illustrates this point well.  The long-running television sit-com “Everyone Loves Raymond” (a full 210 episodes) featured the supposed Italian “Barone” family, but we all knew that it was just a Jewish family in disguise.  The film “Exporting Raymond” makes this fact clear: the series’ creator, executive producer and chief writer Phil Rosenthal based so much of the series on his own family and painful childhood growing up in a suburb of New York City.  This hilarious documentary – co-produced by Rosenthal and John Woldenberg (both Festival guests) – shows how Sony Television “exported” the series to Russia.  The camera crew follows Rosenthal to Moscow, where he considers whether or not he needs kidnap and ransom insurance, has his own driver/bodyguard and attempts to adapt the scripts to Russian life.  This is a (real) comedy of manners, and breathtaking in its portrayal of how New York American (Jewish) television characters translate to a very different culture (but hey, the Russians also did it for “The Nanny”).  The result – against all odds – was successful, at least for the Russian TV network.

I must admit that I had not paid much attention to the ancient Jewish town of Susya (also spelled “Susiya”), the location of an ancient Jewish settlement in the southern Hebron Hills, and which features the ruins of a notable synagogue from the fourth century CE.  For some years now, the area has been a flashpoint between settlers and Palestinians, with some local Arab families losing their land for the creation of an archaeological park.  The short (15 minute) Israeli documentary “Susya” (directed by Dani Rosenberg and Yoav Gross) shows the visit of an Arab father and his adult son who used to live in the village and buy tickets to the archaeological site in order to visit their former home, which they left some 25 years prior.  This is a sad although unresolved film, which only hints at the great forces at work and the historical conflicts surrounding the town.

In addition to these three films, the Festival includes a number of films by Jewish film-makers, including noted documentary maker Frederick Wiseman, Australian Amy Gebhardt (“Carnival Queen” and “The Map My Summer Channel”) who will be a Festival guest, Azazel Jacobs (“Terri”), Jody Shapiro (also a Festival guest), Michael Epstein (“LENNONYC”) and an appearance by Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of Dreamworks Animation, in Australia to launch “Kung Fu Panda 2 in 3D”.

Screenings of “A Common Purpose” are already sold out – a good indication as to the popularity of this film.  “Exporting Raymond” screens on Saturday 11th June at 1.45pm and Monday 13th June at 8.00pm.  “Susya” screens on Wednesday 15th June at 11.30am and on Sunday 19th June at 5.05pm.

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