Yemenite-Israeli film Golden Pomegranate premieres in Australia

July 26, 2011

(Directed by Dan Turgeman; screenplay by Robert M. Bleiweiss and Dan Turgeman; Israel 2010).

A most unusual Israeli film have its Australian premiere on Saturday night 30th July 2011 – at Sydney’s North Shore Temple EmanuelThe Golden Pomegranate is billed as the first feature film to illustrate the history of the modern state of Israel from a Yemenite perspective.

So many of our most famous screen (and literary) Zionist narratives are based on the Ashkenazi (northern and eastern European) experience of migration.  Think of Exodus, the influential 1960 film directed by Otto Preminger.  Certainly there have been Sephardic migration stories (such as the outstanding 1964 film Sallah Shabati, starring Topol, written and directed by Ephraim Kishon), but there is no doubt that modern Israeli history has mostly been written by Ashkenazi Jews.

The Golden Pomegranate is set within a framing device:  a modern-day Yemenite singer in Jerusalem (played by Achinoam – Noa – Nini) meets an elderly Arab friend of her family. The film is based on the 1995 novel The Pomegranate Pendant by Melbourne-born Jerusalem resident Dvora Waysman.

The film first screened in July 2010 at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which often provides the first international exposure to a large number of Jewish themed films.  At that festival, the film reportedly “engendered considerable in buzz Israel’s Yemenite community, and Tuesday’s premier at the festival was packed, with a few dozen elderly Yemenite women waiting outside the screening hall in hope they would be let in at the last minute,” wrote Benjamin Joffe-Walt in JewishJournal.com.

The film is sweeping in its scope, with 48 speaking parts and 300 extras, a wide variety of settings and including powerful Yemenite music.  It takes place over the period 1880s to the mid-1970s, commencing in Yemen.  The core character of the film is Mazal, who we first meet as a fourteen year-old child-bride who marries Ezra.  She arrives in Jerusalem in 1882, has two children, becomes a young widow (sorry for the plot giveaway here – Ezra reappears later to provide spiritual guidance to Mazal), and provides for her family by running her family’s jewelry making business – which she originally learned from her father.  At its heart, this is also a feminist story of women triumphing over financial, personal and historical challenges: at first semiliterate, Mazal eventually learns how to read and write, speak several languages and befriends a number of women.

The film has a wonderful aesthetic and will particularly appeal to those from Sephardic backgrounds for whom the illustration of this story can be quite profound.  The film slowly builds and the final third does provide a satisfying emotional pay-off.

A few criticisms: The English-language dialogue (with occasional bursts of welcome Hebrew) spoken by predominantly Israeli actors with a variable range of accents comes across as slightly bizarre to this native English-language speaker who understands Hebrew.  The 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit was actually declared ineligible for “Best Foreign Film” Oscar contention because more than 50 percent of the dialogue is in English, but at least that film had a rationale for the use of English:  the Egyptian Arabs had to find a common language with their Israeli hosts. I do recall seeing an Israeli feature film in 1988 about early Zionist settlers which was also shot in English, and the 1995 war film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was mostly shot in English.  While some of the acting in The Golden Pomegranate is superb, there is also some inconsistency and stilted language, part of which I mark down to the actors speaking (for them) a non-native tongue.  There is a lesson here: sometimes making a truly “local” film is preferable than trying to appeal to an international audience (Australian film producers take note!).

I also would have liked more of the modern story of the Yemenite singer (and her music!), as a means of bringing the historical points of the film together.  But that would have inevitably cut into the time allotted to the story, which needs to cover almost 100 years in about 100 minutes.

Some viewers may also be put off by the change in actors of some of the key roles as they age throughout the film.  The Americans do this very well, almost perfectly matching younger actors to their older selves (anyone seen Beaches recently:  check out the young Bette Midler; or Annie Hall’s childhood version of Woody Allen in one of the opening scenes). The Golden Pomegranate follows a more European tradition, in which actors are changed mid-way through without the same level of concern for consistency of looks.  Israeli film-making tends to take a more European approach to story-telling, which is best described as more artistically interpretative than the literalness Americans so frequently have.

You can view the trailer for the film here:


New Croakey blog post on Indigenous eye health project

July 21, 2011

My blog post on Croakey about the Rural Health Education Foundation’s Indigenous eye health project has just been published on Croakey, the health blog of Crikey.  This post details the program A Clear View, which will be a simultaneous satellite broadcast, interactive webcast and National Indigenous Television (NITV) broadcast on Tuesday 26th July 2011 – certainly the first time these three media have all been used at the same time.  Admission:  I am the Executive Producer of the program.


Film Distribution in Australia, part 3: How Australia compares internationally

July 21, 2011

Australia historically has been a relatively high-level consumer of American audio-visual products with – by international standards – a very high level of cinema attendance as well (Johnson 2006). Although Australian cinema admissions per capita have declined from 4.6 admissions in 2004 per person per year to 4.1 admissions in 2008, Australia was still ranked equal fourth in the world (along with the USA) – not far behind Iceland (5.4), Ireland (4.2) and Singapore (4.2) and ahead of New Zealand (3.6), Canada (3.2), South Korea (3.1), France (3.0), and India (2.9) and the United Kingdom (2.7).[1]

Even in absolute cinema admissions numbers, Australia is significant in world terms, coming in fifteenth in world rankings in 2008 with 84.6 million admissions. The world leader is India, with 3,330 million admissions in 2008, followed by the USA with 1,248 million admissions, China (209.8 million), France (188.8), Mexico (182.4), the United Kingdom (164.2) and Japan (160.5).[2] Thus, Australian cinema admissions are roughly half that of the third, fourth and fifth leading countries. This finding is consistent with Australia’s number of cinema screens in 2008: fifteenth in the world, with 1,941 screens, well behind world leaders USA (38,834), China (35,200), India (10,120), France (5,418) and Germany (4,810), with the United Kingdom in ninth place with 3,661 screens. Australia is not far behind Brazil (2,491) and South Korea (2,081).[3] In actual theatrical box office revenues, Australia rises to eleventh place (where it has been since 2002) with $USD807.1 million in 2008, ahead of China, Mexico, the Russian Federation and Brazil (all countries with many more cinema admissions), due to Australia’s higher cinema prices.[4]

When considering the viewing of American-made films and the financial return to American producers, Australia is even more significant. In 2003, Australia was ranked the sixth top foreign market for American films, after Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and France – and ahead of Italy and Mexico. However, on a per capita return basis, of the top eight countries, Australia actually rated first, with an average of $AUD8.34 per person (per capita), significantly higher than all other countries and well ahead of Spain. These 2003 figures are consistent with those from the late 1970s, when Australia ranked first in per capita return and eighth in total revenue (see Dermody & Jacka 1987, pp. 110-111). This high ranking is partly because of Australia’s relatively high per capita cinema attendance, but also a result of the overwhelming percentage of box office revenue for American films. In 2008, the overwhelming majority of Australian box office revenue (85 percent) went to American films.[5]

Thus it is clear that Australia has consistently been “punching above its weight” regarding consumption of – and payment for – American feature films. However, these figures do not tell the whole story. The distribution of American films in English-speaking countries – the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand[6] is less expensive and more profitable for the Hollywood studios than non-English speaking countries, as there are no requirements for expensive subtitling and different prints and rarely the necessity to edit the film to cater for local mores and tastes. Australia is also a reliable source of profit: unlike many smaller “foreign” markets, money from the “major market countries” identified above is repatriated back to the American studios within a year of release, compared to a delay of possibly many years in smaller markets (Epstein 2005a, pp. 115-116). Thus Australia plays an unusually important role for American film profitability, despite its relatively small size.


[1] Sources: Screen Australia, based on data from Screen Digest and the Cinema Intelligence Service. See www.screenaustralia.gov.au/gtp/acompadmitper.html, accessed 5 October 2010; and Digital Cinema Media Cinema Update 2009, www.dcm.co.uk/SiteAssets/Cinema_Update_2009.ppt, accessed 3 January 2010.

[2] Source: Screen Australia, based on data from Screen Digest. See www.screenaustralia.gov.au/gtp/acompadmissions.html, accessed 3 January 2010.

[3] Source: Screen Australia, based on data from Screen Digest. See www.screenaustralia.gov.au/gtp/acompscreens.html, accessed 3 January 2010.

[4] Source: Screen Australia, based on data from Screen Digest and the Cinema Intelligence Service. See www.screenaustralia.gov.au/gtp/acompboxoffice.html, accessed 3 January 2010. Note that admissions calculated in $US can be highly variable depending on the changing exchange rate.

[5] Sources: Screen Australia, based on data supplied by the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia; see www.screenaustralia.gov.au/gtp/wcboshare.html and www.screenaustralia.gov.au/gtp/wcfilmxcountry.html, both accessed 3 January 2010.

[6] This does not include Canada, which has been part of the US – called “North American” – market since the 1920s (see O’Regan 1990).


Life is Beautiful film review

July 17, 2011

I know that this film came out in 1997/98, but – following my post on Italian Jewish film – it is valuable for me to publish my review of Life is Beautiful, which was originally published in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News on December 18, 1998, when the film was released in Australia.

(Directed by Roberto Benigni; written by Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni)

When Charlie Chaplin produced, directed, wrote and starred in The Great Dictator in 1940, it was not easy for him.  His own studio (United Artists, of which he was a co-owner) did not want to make it, and many Nazi sympathisers actively opposed the film. But Chaplin did make the film, and it eventually became his most financially successful film ever.  His political satire and use of humour was controversial, but his insights into warnings about the coming Holocaust were prescient.  Many people at the time thought Chaplin was Jewish (no definite evidence exists to substantiate this), but his persona drew heavily on Jewish comic traditions including vaudeville.

In 1958, The Great Dictator was joined by Me and the Colonel (starring Danny Kaye as a Jewish refugee in France) as the only two “comedies” about the Holocaust. Few people would have believed that anyone would ever again attempt to make such a film.  Until now.

With the release of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (La Vita E Bella), the history of Holocaust film-making is being rewritten yet again – just as we are still attempting to absorb the profound and continuing impact of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.  Don’t mistake Life is Beautiful:  this is no Schindler’s List – it does not have the budget, the scope, the emotional film-making skills of Spielberg nor the accessibility (it is in Italian), but it is still one of the most unexpected and significant Holocaust films in recent memory.

Roberto Benigni is a highly acclaimed (non-Jewish) comic Italian film-maker and entertainer, known for his interesting English-language performances in Down by Law and Son of the Pink Panther, and his own Italian comedies including Johnny Stecchino and The Monster.  While his talents are well-appreciated in his native Italy, it is usually only “art-house” English language audiences who are familiar with him. But like most comics, Benigni has a deeper and a darker side. His fascination with Italy’s history during the Second World War (his father was imprisoned in a German labor camp during the war) and in particular the fate of Italy’s Jews gradually lead him to direct, co-write and star in Life is Beautiful.

Life is Beautiful commences in 1939 and tells the fable-like story of Guido (Benigni), who arrives in Tuscany with his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) with the dream of opening a bookshop. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, but the two ignore all signals, and the incurable romantic Guido falls in love with the lovely schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Except that Dora is engaged to the local fascist leader, and Guido is Jewish. Guido takes a waiter position with his uncle in the local “Grand Hotel” (looking like it came right out of Hollywood in 1939), and eventually woos and wins the adoring Dora.

The story then picks up some years later: Guido and Dora are still living in the town, along with their son Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), and Guido has the small bookshop of his dreams. But the Germans have now occupied this part of Italy, and Guido and Giosue are rounded up and put on a train bound for a concentration camp.  The non-Jewish Dora insists on being put on the same train, and finds herself in the same camp, although separated from her loved ones.  Desperate to shield his son from the horrors they are experiencing, Guido creates an imaginary world and elaborate game for Giosue as a means of getting him through the terrible experiences.

As Guido, Benigni gives a stunning performance which appears to be half Charlie Chaplin and half Groucho Marx. Benigni has clearly studied Chaplin and modeled much of his film – and his performance – on the classical master of comedy.  The hints are there, both large and small. Like Chaplin in The Great Dictator, he even gets to imitate (and satirise) fascists on a number of occasions.  Guido’s Italian “translation” of a German guard’s speech is a traditional and highly effective set piece.

Unlike contemporary American films that start loud and end the same way, Life is Beautiful slowly builds: we only realise that Guido is Jewish one-third of the way into the film, and only half-way in does the tone change entirely. The film maintains a slightly impressionistic quality, just this side of full realism – and this ingenious presentation allows Benigni to delve into the horrors while never losing our attention.

Life is Beautiful has won numerous awards (including a tremendous reception at last July’s Jerusalem Film Festival) and is a serious candidate for the “Best Foreign Film” Oscar (Note:  At the 71st Academy Awards, the film won Oscars for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, and Best Foreign Language Film, with Benigni winning Best Actor for his role.  The film also received Academy Award nominations for Directing, Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture.)

The comedy treatment of some Holocaust themes may prove controversial for some, but at its heart this is a very, very serious film about basic themes of love, life and death.  It is about the overwhelming and heartbreaking love of a man for his wife and for his son in the context of the Holocaust and Italian Jewish history, and is an outstanding achievement.


Italian-Jewish film bibliography and filmography

July 17, 2011

The New York-based Centro Primo Levi has just published a bibliography and filmography of Jews in Italian cinema, the first one I can recall coming across.  The page lists 17 feature films from 2000 onwards, and 14 from the 1990s.  Certainly the best-known is La vita è bella (English title:  Life is Beautiful), dir. Roberto Benigni, 1997.  But the surprise is how many others there are.  The Centro will soon supply annotations for each of the works listed.  Worth checking out if you have an interest in Italian and/or Jewish film.


Digital inclusion, health and wealth in Australia

July 16, 2011

The following is the text of a blog post which appeared today (15 July 2011) on Croakey, the health blog of Crikey.  You can read the original post by clicking here.

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I recently identified the possibility that without positive intervention, the growth of broadband internet could mean that more than three million Australians would be left on the wrong side of the digital divide, and that this would have significant public health implications.

There is a great deal which we do not yet know or understand about what impacts broadband will have on our lives.  A report on broadband adoption and economic benefits for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) notes (p. 18) that:

The adoption of generic new technologies such as broadband creates a multitude of economic effects that ripple through markets and communities, potentially for many years.  Their cumulative effects are complex, often profound and have the potential to change work patterns, social relationships, economic activity and settlement patterns.

Despite the optimistic forecasts of the July 2010 Access Economics Telehealth report, it is also important to recognise that the use of broadband for Australian consumer applications is still in its infancy.

A 2009 article by University of Miami academic María E. Davalos and colleagues warns that telehealth evaluation studies to date may not be reliable because of their small sample sizes, lack of uniform methodologies, scant use of randomised control trials, lack of long-term impacts and disparate estimation methods.

Health is clearly not a top driver of broadband take-up:  the ACMA internet service market report of July 2011 does not specifically mention health matters as part of the listing of most popular activities which people do online.

The evaluation of a ground-breaking pilot digital inclusion initiative undertaken in a Melbourne public housing estate by the non-profit organisation Infoxchange does indicate positive benefits for health, although the main direct economic benefits were in education and employment.

A number of Australian pilot broadband health consumer applications are currently underway, including a Western Australian CSIRO rural and remote eye screening project, falls prevention, chronic illness monitoring in the Hunter Valley and a Townsville diabetes management project.

Although we do not yet have much data, this does not mean that broadband for health is not important:  clearly it is, if for no other reason that there is now a widespread assumption (and thus a de facto requirement) that we will all access information online.

American media commentator Peter Osnos (a Fellow at the Century Foundation in the USA) noted in a 6th July article that:

The free information services of the past are gradually being eliminated or reduced…. Telephone books are disappearing because they are an environmental nuisance. Telephone information calls can now cost up to $2. The assumption is that shifting material onto the Internet seems to be cost-free, when in fact we are paying the telecommunications providers whatever price they set. The move to digital communications — with all the benefits we attribute to the process — is irreversible, and the costs have been accepted by those who can afford the changes with barely a ripple.

Osnos goes on to write that his monthly household “spend” for two adults living in Connecticut on telephone (two mobiles, two landlines), broadband and cable TV was US$487 per month, plus electricity (estimated at $40/month) to power it all.

This pattern is being replicated in Australia.  My Sydney household’s adult monthly “spend” for a similar pattern (two landlines and two mobiles, plus broadband) averages about Aus$350 – without the cable TV, plus electricity – and thus is reasonably equivalent.  That’s $4200/year, which would be a very significant sum for a low income family.  And just this week I went through the exercise of attempting to obtain my family’s Medicare and private health insurance statements for the last financial year:  the assumptions were that it would all happen online.

Positive trends are evident, with the current Australian Government paying particular attention to what is broadly termed “digital inclusion”.  On 1st July, the NBN Co launched an interim broadband satellite service for residents, small businesses and Indigenous communities in rural and remote Australia who can’t currently access broadband services comparable to those available in metropolitan areas.

And on 7th July, The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, launched the 2011-12 Regional Telecommunications Review, that will examine telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia.

All of this attention is great, but it is early days yet, and the Government can still get distracted by other – and more pressing – political matters (carbon tax, anyone?).

As Osnos warns, “redress(ing) the digital divide was an early agenda item for the Obama administration, but (with) so much else to grapple with now, little momentum seems left for that effort.”