Jewish themes in Sydney Film Festival 2013

(This article appears in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 30 May 2013.)

Even in these days of hyper availability of movies via digital television, FoxTel, DVD, Blu-Ray and digital downloads, film festivals continue to play a crucial role in showcasing small, niche and specialist films to a wider audience.  As the second oldest Australian film festival (Melbourne beats it) and operating continuously for 60 years, the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) still takes a commanding role in setting the parameters of Australian screen culture and film consumption.

Each year the SFF reflects the Jewish experience in many odd, unusual and unexpected ways.  Unlike the annual Australian Jewish Film Festival (and the newer Israeli Film Festival), the SFF does not have a “Jewish” or “Israeli” quota.  So the Jewish experiences we see reflected on screen are there because they have “floated to the top” of the world’s festival and art film circuit.  So what does this year’s SFF tell us about the Jewish experience?

First off, Israeli films continue to fascinate and engage the world in ways certainly unheard (or un-dreamt) of until recently.  Yes, Israel is frequently in the news, and the modern state of Israel is a rich source of drama (literally), but only lately has this been reflected in high quality cinematic products.  In “The Attack”, an Arab doctor living comfortably in Tel Aviv has his life turned upside down when his wife becomes a suicide bomber.  And in the documentary “Dancing in Jaffa”, a French-Palestinian dancer returns to Jaffa and tries to get Arab and Jewish kids to dance together, a new take on the never-ending attempts to cross the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.

This year the festival also features two oddly autobiographic and charming films from young actresses:  Sarah Polley and Greta Gerwig.  In a relatively short writing and directing career, Canadian film actor and latterly director Sarah Polley has tackled some tough subjects:  dementia (“Away From Her”) and adultery in “Take This Waltz”, which starred Seth Rogen along with a number of other Jewish actors in Jewish character roles.  In “Stories We Tell”, she breaks new ground in the documentary format, with an adventurous, challenging and thought-provoking investigation into her own personal history.  The background is that Polley grew up believing that actor Michael Polley was her biological father.   Some years ago, she discovered that her actual father was Harry Gulkin, a Jewish film producer with whom Sarah’s mother Diane had had an affair while acting in a play in Montreal.  “Stories We Tell” investigates this unravelling of family secrets, using home movies, interviews and re-created scenes from her childhood.  Critic Anthony Lane (“The New Yorker”) calls the film, “a startling mixture of private memoir, public inquiry, and conjuring trick” that leaves the viewer feeling destabilised.  Critic Kenneth Turan (“Los Angeles Times”) describes the experience as “life-changing for the audience”.  Stories of “found” Jewish identity are many, but “Stories We Tell” is likely to be one of the most memorable ones you will see on film.

Actress Greta Gerwig is not Jewish, but the film in which she stars and co-wrote – “Frances Ha” – may very well set the tone for Woody Allen wanna-bes in the next decade.  “Time” magazine calls it “A Millennial ‘Annie Hall'”, but perhaps you should think of it more like “Annie Hall” crossed with “Girls” (the film includes Adam Driver from that series, here in a Jewish character role), splashed with a touch of “Greenberg”.  The “Greenberg” analogy is apt, because Gerwig’s collaborator (and the film’s director) is Noah Baumbach, who comes as close as anyone can to being the true inheritor of Woody Allen’s mantle of New York Jewish comedic angst.  (Like Allen, Baumbach grew up in Brooklyn attended Allen’s former high school – Midwood.)  This delightful comedy follows Gerwig’s character from hilarious disaster to disaster.  And the autobiography?:  Gerwig’s parents play themselves as her parents, a great personal treat for me, as her father was a friend of mine back in our university days.  Recommended unreservedly.

The Festival also features a number of films made by Jewish directors.  My favourite of these is “Lovelace”, a drama about the life of infamous porn star Linda Lovelace (“Deep Throat”) made by my second cousin Rob Epstein and his partner Jeffrey Friedman, Jewish film-makers from San Francisco whose work has frequently featured at the SFF (most recently “Howl”).  A different film comes from first-time Jewish director Stuart Blumberg:  his sex addiction support group comedy “Thanks for Sharing” stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins.

Fans of Polish-Jewish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”) may wish to catch her lengthy television series, “Burning Bush”, examining Czech history from the historic changes in 1969.  Jewish installation artist Jem Cohen has made “Museum Hours”, a drama set in Vienna that one American critic calls “the best drama ever made about museums and the connection between visual art and everyday life”.  I am somewhat less enthusiastic:  the film is slow, physically bleak (Central Europe in winter does not excite) but artistically ambitious – in many ways a true “art” film that the Festival audience may very well love.

Sydney Film Fest banner and State Theatre


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