It’s changed organisational structures at least three times in its 23 year history. With a Jewish population barely reaching 100,000 spread over the whole of Australia, it nevertheless competes in box office and patronage with places with many more Jews. It’s Australia’s Jewish festival, now called the “Jewish International Film Festival” (JIFF), which has just released its 2013 program.
There’s something about Jews and film that captures the imagination. Perhaps it’s due to the colourful Hollywood moguls back in the 1930s – people like Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and the four Warner brothers (guess which studio they founded?). Or maybe it’s just the interesting lives that Jews have lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, neatly illustrating the sly sting of the ancient Chinese curse that “may you live in interesting times”. Do you need more proof that Jews and movies can stir controversy? Look no further than the latest public arguments about Ben Urwand’s recent book Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler.
So it is with great anticipation that I look forward to this year’s JIFF, arriving on our shores with 51 features, documentaries and short films, almost all of them premieres.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the Jewish film festival. But it sure helps. Look at the names of the twelve categories of films: All the World’s a Stage, Quality Schmaltz, Triumph of the Spirit, Coming of Age, Drama and Desire, Brilliant Minds, Haunted Histories, Power to the People, Reimagining Culture, Women on Film, Hamatzav and Living Dead.
“Schmaltz” is Yiddish for fat (literally), but figuratively is used to describe romantic or “soppy” movies or books. “Triumph of the Spirit” is actually the name of a Holocaust survivor film, based on a real story and starring Willem Dafoe as former Greek Olympic boxer sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. “Hamatzav” is Hebrew for “the situation”, and for Israelis, there is only one – the matte of the Palestinians. It’s an “inside” word that all Israelis know, and many diaspora Jews understand.
First up this year is Fill the Void, set in an ultra-Orthodox part of Tel Aviv about an 18 year-old girl who finds herself torn between love and duty when pressured to marry the husband of her late sister. It has already played at the Toronto and Venice International Film Festivals.
What else am I looking forward to? The comic documentary When Comedy Went to School, about American comic “legends”. The Last of the Unjust, the latest documentary by Claude Lanzmann, who made the towering Shoah.
The Festival screens in Sydney from 30 October through 17 November, and in Melbourne from 6 though 24 November. Check out their website for more detail.