(Note: this article on the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Australia originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 February 2014.)
The Jewish experience in France is a complicated one: after centuries of persecution, Jews were emancipated during the French Revolution, and Napoleon spread this freedom to Jews in other parts of Europe as he expanded the French empire. Yet it was in France that the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, and French collaboration with Nazis in persecuting Jews was widespread. Today, with more than half a million Jews living in France, the Jewish contribution to French life and culture continues to be significant. Each year, the French Film Festival provides a window into the latest intersections of Jewish history and French culture.
This year two Festival films contain Jewish themes: one on Russian-Jewish refuseniks and one on Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland. The Festival also features “Grand Central”, a new film by French-Jewish director Rebecca Zlotowski (“Belle Epine”) and a small retrospective of films by Francois Truffaut, who is a significant figure in French Jewish film. Truffaut (1932-84) is not identified as Jewish in the popular mind, but private research in the late 1960s identified his previously unknown father as Jewish. While Truffaut’s mother denied the allegation, Truffaut reportedly embraced it, believing that it explained much of his character and his interest in society’s outcasts and martyrs. But Truffaut’s experience of Jewish life went further: his first wife, Madeleine Morgenstern, was Jewish, as were his two daughters with her – Laura and Eva. More than that, we remember Truffaut for his two classic Jewish films: “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (Goodbye, Children) and “The Last Metro”. While neither of these films are included in the retrospective, the Festival does feature “Finally, Sunday”, “Jules and Jim” and his autobiographical “The 400 Blows”.
Despite its inherent human drama during a heightened time of Cold War tension, there are remarkably few filmic portrayals of the experience of Soviet Jews during the Brezhnev “refusenik” period, when many Jewish attempted, usually without success, to leave Soviet Russia. The Festival features one film that deals with this time – “Friends From France” (“Les Interdits”), directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski. Set in 1979, two French Jewish cousins (played by the singer Soko and Jeremie Lippmann) travel to Odessa pretending to be an engaged couple on a holiday. But they are really there to make contact with Soviet-Jewish dissidents. It’s a time of danger and secret police raids. Complications ensue when the cousins become attracted to each other, and the personal and the political become intertwined.
The “Belle and Sebastian” story started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry. Set in the French Alps, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep. The book was adapted into a French TV series and then a Japanese animated series. This new film version has been re-set in 1943 and moved to the French-Swiss border, with an additional theme of local Nazi soldiers who are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland. It is beautifully filmed in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.
It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing, and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian. It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters. The French Film Festival’s screenings of “Belle and Sebastian” are the first ones in an English language country, one of many opportunities to see un-released French films.
The Festival runs in Sydney from 4 through 23 March and Melbourne from 5 through 23 March. Click here for details on Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.