Footnote film

April 28, 2012

If you live in Australia and want to watch the new Israeli film Footnote – written and directed by Joseph Cedar – in the cinema, you must promptly run and not walk there.

This Israeli film was the Israeli nominee for the 2011 Academy Awards for “best foreign film” and made the final shortlist (losing out to the Iranian film A Separation).  The film won “best screenplay” at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, nine of the “Israel Academy” awards (as well as nominated for three more).

The film revolves around a complicated relationship between two Talmud scholars who teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which I find very cool, as I attended that university briefly and worked for their local Australian outpost – the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University – for almost two years.

Footnote is hilarious, delightfully malicious and offers a biting satire of both academic life and the nature of modern Israel.  An early scene at a cocktail party shows a number of academics discussing the feminine nature of how Jewish men are portrayed, complete with references to a “Boyarin” – a clever in-joke because there are two academic Boyarins – the brothers Daniel and Jonathan, both working in the same field of Jewish studies.  A later scene of a meeting of the “Israel Prize Committee” takes place at the Ministry of Education in essentially a closet, where about eight people must get up and move each time someone enters the room.  The metaphorical claustrophobia of both academia and Israeli life are neatly contrasted.

I loved Footnote, which is not quite an academic thriller – more of a family comedy-drama (or serio-comedy) set against the background of academia.  According to Box Office Mojo, as of 23 April 2012, the film had grossed US$1,353,047 in the USA after six weeks of limited release, and was gradually expanding to 84 cinemas.  In Australia, the box office is so low I can’t even find a record of it.

Here in Australia,  in its second week of release Footnote is down to about seven screenings per day (in two cinemas) in Melbourne and three screenings per day (in two cinemas) in Sydney.  It also is playing in one cinema each in Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra.  I saw it on Wednesday 25 April at the Randwick Ritz in Sydney’s eastern suburbs with an appreciative audience approximately 40% full – although mostly a very old (age 70+ audience) and apparently European audience.  Israeli films historically have rarely released in Australia, and when they do they tend not to last long in the cinema:  Australia’s Jewish population is not that large (100,000 people and that’s counting lots of people who would prefer not to be counted).

If Footnote were an American “art” film with similar production values and the same sense of clever humour, the critics would be falling all over it.  Mind you, many American critics are:  A.O. Scott in The New York Times and David Denby in The New Yorker (“acidly entertaining”) both gave it very positive reviews.  The film aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes currently has it as “91% positive”, which is a very high rating.

But even in this age of almost unlimited choice, Footnote is hard to see here – and will be even harder (at least legally; online piracy is a totally separate topic) once it leaves the handful of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra cinemas.

But the difficulty in watching a film has absolutely no connection to its quality.  The world is like that sometimes.  Compare Footnote to the latest American Pie: Reunion:  I am sorry to report that I, who enjoyed all previous American Pie films released in cinemas, walked out of this last one.  My excuse:  I needed to grade some papers, a lot better use of my time than sitting watching that film.  American Pie in three weeks of release has grossed AUS$13,428,159 here in Australia and is playing in 290 cinemas, with a higher “per cinema” average than The Hunger GamesFootnote, I am sorry to say – and this pun is truly intended – will be nothing but a footnote in the 2012 Australian theatrical box office, whereas American Pie will almost certainly be sitting in the top twenty for the year, and may even make the top ten.  (For box office figures, go to Urban Cinefile website.)

Here are two different versions of the Footnote trailer:


Festival of German films in Australia

April 27, 2012

The following article on the Festival of German Films in Australia appeared in a shorter version in the Australian Jewish News on 26 April 2012.

There is something distinctly disconcerting viewing the Jewish experience refracted through contemporary German film.  Two hundred-plus years of modern German-Jewish history and the legacies of the murderous Nazi period provide an uncomfortable backdrop for any film with Jewish characters and themes which is made by non-Jewish film-makers in that country.

For these reasons, the Goethe Institute’s annual “Festival of German Films” – running through 30 April in Melbourne and Sydney, later in other states – provides a frequently powerful insight into how Jews have evolved in the German mind and cultural framework.  Of the 27 films in this year’s Festival, five have important Jewish-related themes.  Perhaps not coincidentally, all of these five have strong Russian connections, with Russian-born directors, stars or locations.

Wunderkinder (playing in Sydney only) is the only film which incorporates a “classic” Holocaust theme, and tells the story of two young prodigy Jewish musicians in the Ukraine in 1941.  They befriend a non-Jewish German girl and her family, literally on the eve of the Nazi occupation of that country.  The film’s understated approach to the impact of the impending Holocaust on Jewish children is intelligent, sensitive and nuanced.  The portrayal of both Soviets and Nazis is remarkably well-done, with rich characters and a fine script.  At times while watching the film, I wondered about its German director and writers: they have created sympathetic Jewish characters and willingly portrayed most Germans (excepting, of course, the “good” German family) and Ukrainians as brutally antisemitic.  This indicates a modern cultural mindset and attitude towards Jews that is not fully understood or appreciated.  Not surprisingly, last year Wunderkinder won a major award from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for “artistic achievement in Holocaust-related film”, and has played at international Jewish film festivals.

By contrast, Moscow-born Leo Khasin’s film Kaddish for a Friend is set in present-day Germany, and tackles one of the more taboo subjects:  the antagonism between European Jews and Arabs.  When a Lebanese Muslim refugee family moves into a working class Berlin neighbourhood, the tension with an aged but independent Jewish war veteran threatens to blow up.  Of particular note is the lead actor, Ryszard Ronczewski, who starred in And Along Came Tourists, a recent German Film Festival hit about young Germans volunteering at Auschwitz.

Also set in present-day East Germany, Combat Girls stars Russian-born German actress Alina Levshin as a very angry young neo-Nazi who hates all outsiders, refugees and especially Jews.  It is strongly reminiscent of the powerful Edward Norton film “American History X”.

Two other festival films are both World War Two dramas:  4 Days in May is based on an actual incident between Russian and German soldiers at the end of the war on the Baltic Sea.  And the seriocomic Hotel Lux (which screened last week, but will probably open soon in cinemas), is set in 1938 Moscow and 1933 Berlin.

Macquarie University graduate address by Don Perlgut

April 20, 2012

Graduate Address – Macquarie University – Wednesday 18 April 2012, 9.30am – to the graduates in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies, Faculty of Arts

Dr Don Perlgut, PhD

(Note: on Wednesday 18 April 2012, I received my Doctor of Philosophy – PhD – from Macquarie University.  I was invited to give the graduate address to my graduating group.  The text of my address is below.)

Chancellor, members of the university, fellow graduates, parents and friends, I am deeply honoured to have been asked to speak this morning on behalf of this graduating class.   I too honour the Daruk people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I acknowledge their elders, past and present.

Congratulations to you, my fellow students for your notable achievements:  you will always remember this graduation, and I can guarantee that your degree will sit prominently both on your mantelpiece and at the top of your resume.

For each of us, attaining this degree has also been the result of a team effort:  the support of family members, friends, advisors, teachers and fellow students.  Please take a moment later today to thank your supporters for their guidance and assistance.

I have a long history with Macquarie University:  I first encountered this august institution in late 1981, when I enrolled for a PhD in urban studies.  I never completed that degree, but the university remembered me.  Eight years ago when I commenced my PhD part-time in what was then known as the Media department, I was issued with the same student number – a number which commences, I am proud to say, with “81”.

At least a few people graduating with us today have student numbers older than mine – and to you I say, aren’t we lucky!  Lucky, because this institution has welcomed and re-welcomed us into its fold, believing in us and encouraging our academic accomplishments with a breath-taking idealism that has lasted decades.

In the 31 years since I first encountered Macquarie, I have met and married the love of my life, had two children, owned three houses and become an Australian citizen.  I have had three different careers and eleven different employers, which include three universities, two non-profit organisations, the ABC, ASIC and two start-up technology companies, neither of which exist today.

I have been a lecturer, film critic, consultant, publisher, business development manager, education officer, project manager, executive director and CEO.  Without exception, I did not and could not have predicted any of those jobs more than a couple of months before they commenced.

Given my own life history, I think back to my early university experiences and I ponder what advice I could have received upon graduation that would have helped me to navigate the uncommon twists and turns which life threw my way.

I undertook my PhD here because I wanted to spend time making sense of the world of media and film.  And that’s exactly what Macquarie University has given me:  the intellectual, professional and personal space, encouragement and support to do just that, within my study of film distribution, exhibition, marketing, cultural studies and religion.

The headline of my dissertation is “The Making of a Cultural Moment”, and I investigated the controversies surrounding the marketing, release and reception of the film The Passion of the Christ, which opened on 25 February 2004 – almost the exact same day I commenced this PhD degree.

From my research into media history, I draw two important conclusions relevant to you, my fellow graduates, particularly those who are at or near the beginning of your careers and life journeys.

The first of these is that history matters.  It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who most famously said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Historians as diverse as Montesquieu, Bernard Lewis and our recently appointed Foreign Minister Bob Carr all concur.  So I exhort you to study the history of both your time and your place in order to help work out where you fit within it.

My second conclusion is that we all have a part in creating our history, even if it does not always feel that way.  As graduates of this important institution, we all have choices. And our respective degrees will enhance both the number and the quality of those choices and opportunities. Some choices are small:  What will I have for lunch today?  But some are large:  Who will I choose for my romantic partner?  Where will I work?  Where will I live?  What is my life goal?

I spent a good part of the last eight years thinking about a certain moment in film history.  What I can tell you now is that this is your historical moment.  For some, it is just a beginning, and for many of us a continuation.  However for all of us, it is a moment of deep and abiding significance.  Thank you,  and I congratulate you again on your achievements.