(This article on the Sydney Film Festival appeared in the Sydney edition of The Australian Jewish News on 28 May 2015.)
Because the Sydney Film Festival considers more than 3000 films for its program each year, and holds no quotas for any country, the selection of films with Jewish themes provides us with an insight into the modern Jewish experience: what issues are on the minds of us Jews – and others in the world? As the German-Jewish cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote in 1947, the themes that people choose for films are important windows into the subconscious mind of their present-day moment.
This year’s result is a mixed one, portraying a great range of Jewish personalities across time and space. There is one Holocaust drama, an experimental drama about Russian part-Jewish film director Sergei Eisenstein, and three documentaries about prominent Jews: a British pop singer (Amy Winehouse), an American fashion designer (Iris Apfel) and an American classical pianist (Seymour Bernstein).
Undoubtedly the Jewish highlight of this year’s festival is the German film “Phoenix”, directed by Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner Christian Petzold. Long-time Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Holocaust survivor whose face has been horribly disfigured. Set in immediate post-war Berlin, Nelly takes the opportunity to reconstruct a new face that allows her to pass un-noticed amongst those she once knew, including her husband, who may – or who may not – have turned her in to the Nazis. The result is a noir-ish mystery of personal identity, masquerade and strong drama.
The film “Amy” brings to screen the creative life and tragic death of British-Jewish pop singer Amy Winehouse. This stunning evocation of the troubled artist’s impact, relationships, music and legacy arrives in Sydney direct from Cannes, where it premiered two weeks ago, and prior to its international cinema release in early July.
The late Albert Maysles was truly one of the great Jewish documentarians, the co-director of classics like “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”. Although he passed away in March of this year at age 88, his final film is a biographical portrait of 93 year-old fashion designer Iris Apfel, a noted New York-born Jewish interior and fashion designer. Among other achievements, Apfel’s company, Old World Weavers, provided furnishings for every American president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. Maysles’ film, “Iris”, is her story, and a must-see for rag-traders.
Thinking man’s actor Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”) directs another Jewish biographical documentary, looking at the life of 87 year-old Seymour Bernstein in “Seymour: An Introduction”. Bernstein stopped his concert career abruptly at age 50 because of panic attacks, and this film touchingly charts his first performance in more than 35 years.
Fresh from this year’s Berlin Festival comes “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”, directed by Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) about time in Mexico spent by Sergei Eisenstein (“The Battleship Potemkin”) in 1930. This highly unconventional film features explicit gay sex, making it likely to be seen only at film festivals. The film industry weekly “Variety” calls “Last Tango in Paris” “tame” by comparison with Greenaway’s effort.
Two short films also contain Jewish themes: one from Israel (“Lama”, or “Why”) and a Palestinian-French co-production (“Ave Maria”) about an Israeli settler’s family whose car breaks down outside a West Bank convent.
Other films of interest include “God Told Me To”, a 1976 murder classic by Larry Cohen; “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, a tell-all documentary that the Church of Scientology has bitterly opposed; “Love and Mercy”, a bio-pic of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, co-written by Israeli Oren Moverman; and “Theeb”, a Jordanian co-production set in 1916 Arabian desert.
There is also a special “focus on South Africa”, with five films, including the classic 1973 “blaxploitation” film, “Joe Bullet”, made with an all-African cast and banned by the Apartheid government after just two public screenings.
(Image from the film “Phoenix”, starring Nina Hoss, appears below.)