I have been covering Jewish film here in Australia for more than 25 years, primarily for “The Australian Jewish News”. It has been a rich cinematic viewing and writing experience.
There is no better way to jump into the Jewish experience in film than through the annual Australian Jewish film festival, now called the “Jewish International Film Festival”, this year featuring 60 different films. It recommences in late October in Sydney (Bondi Junction), Melbourne (Classic Cinemas), Perth, Gold Coast and New Zealand.
JIFF is no “second run” festival, and has some of the best current releases.
I am most looking forward to Natalie Portman’s first directorial effort, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, based on the lyrical and profound autobiographical book by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, detailing his childhood in Jerusalem during the period leading up to and after the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel. Portman not only directs, but plays Oz’s mother Fania. Portman, you may recall, is the Israeli-born actress (who still speaks a fluent Hebrew), Harvard-educated actress who made her first splash in the first “Star Wars” trilogy.
It’s hard to over-state the impact of the Amos Oz book, written in a novelistic fashion, by possibly Israel’s greatest modern writer. At 600+ pages, it’s also a significant challenge to adapt to a single feature film, and the result – although possibly not perfect – is one of those “must sees” for anyone who feels that they must be part of the “Jewish cultural moment”.
My friend Tal Kra-Oz attended the Israeli premiere in Jerusalem, was impressed by the film’s ability to capture the look and feel of 1940s Jerusalem, and incisively analysed the challenges that the film faces in portraying Oz’s rich, lyrical and wandering prose.
The film has just screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and “Esquire” magazine writer Stephen Marche describes it as “a study of the moment when Jews changed from being a people in the diaspora to a people with a country”. Marche writes that “for American audiences, [this is] a new kind of Jewish film ….”. While 1945 was “the end of the story, for Spielberg” (in “Schindler’s List”), it is only the beginning for Portman.
From that time:
Far from being the redemption of history, was the founding of a crisis whose meaning has not yet been resolved. Israel was indeed salvation for the characters in “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, but what follows salvation? Portman’s movie could not be appearing at a better moment. The debates around Israel … so endless, so tedious, so removed from the actual realities of the country and its region … have always taken people as ciphers for political struggles they do not participate in.
His conclusion: “the most revolutionary Jewish movie since ‘Schindler’s List’”. (If that does not inspire to you to watch it, what will?)
My second most anticipated film of the JIFF is “Son of Saul”, a Hungarian drama (also at Toronto) that may just win in the February 2016 Academy Awards for best foreign language film. Just when we thought it was impossible to say anything new about the horrors of Auschwitz, this tale of a father who tries to honour his son reportedly devastates audiences with its power.
Not every JIFF film will have the impact of these two, but it’s an awfully good start. For more information, go to the Jewish International Film Festival website.
(below: Natalie Portman in “A Tale of Love and Darkness”)