(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News – Sydney edition, on 2 June 2016.)
Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Sydney Film Festival, the apparently random selection of films reflecting Jewish subjects and characters provides an unusual insight into how the “current moment” of Jewish life is reflected in contemporary film. In short, the answer is that there are a lot of Jews both behind and in front of the camera, especially in the USA and Israel.
In a festival full of Jewish film riches, possibly the most heart-breaking is “No Home Movie”, the last film by the late Belgian-Jewish film-maker Chantal Akerman. As a dual portrait of both the film-maker and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor, this films poignantly captures Natalia’s final months – and tragically, Chantal’s as well. The Festival also includes a screening of Akerman’s restored 1975 classic cult feminist film “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”.
This year two Israeli documentaries continue to showcase the dynamism and vitality of film-making from that country: “Mr. Gaga”, directed by Tomer Heymann, and “Presenting Princess Shaw”, by Ido Haar. Heymann – a Festival guest – spent eight years filming the subjects of “Mr. Gaga”, the internationally renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and his Batsheva Dance Company, which he has led since 1990, bringing it to international recognition. This is edgy modern dance, brought to the screen with multicam footage, which “Variety” has called “the most exciting documentary … on modern dance since ‘Pina’”. This film is a “must-see” for fans of modern dance or those interested in the cutting edge of the modern Israeli arts scene.
“Presenting Princess Shaw” reflects another kind of Israeli arts. New Orleans aged care worker Samantha Montgomery writes and sings on the web as “Princess Shaw”. Israeli composer, video artist and kibbutz resident Ophir Kutiel (known as “Kutiman”) creates YouTube video “mashups”. This popular documentary charts how they have worked together.
“Weiner” is a different form of documentary, portraying the 2011 and 2013 meltdowns and sex scandals of former New York Jewish congressman and wanna-be mayor Anthony Weiner. Made by two Jewish directors, Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner aide) and Elyse Steinberg, “Weiner” has been named by “Atlantic” magazine as “the best documentary about American politics in many years”. Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is a long-time advisor to Hillary Clinton, and currently is the vice chair of Clinton’s Presidential campaign. This proximity to real power – and the uncomfortable parallels between Weiner and Bill Clinton – gives this documentary a true current relevance.
The title of the Danish-German film “Land of Mine” (“Under Sandet”) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark. Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm. A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans. Although there are no Jewish characters or themes in “Land of Mine”, this powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?
“Maggie’s Plan” is one of the festival’s most enjoyable films, a Woody Allen-ish dialogue and character-driven comedy of the sort we also now identify with Noah Baumbach. Set in New York City and directed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Jewish playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, the film includes Baumbach favourite Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) as the befuddled Maggie, Maya Rudolph (daughter of Jewish composer Richard Rudolph) and everyone’s favourite Jewish character actor, Wallace Shawn.
The most interesting Jewish family to appear in this year’s Festival is that of the Suskinds in “Life: Animated”, a documentary about Owen Suskind (son of journalist Ron Suskind), a boy with autism who finds a way to communicate through Disney characters.
A large number films by Jewish directors are also represented in the Festival, including Steven Spielberg’s family blockbuster, “The BFG”; two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s documentaries “Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation” and “Miss Sharon Jones!”; octogenarian Frederick Wiseman’s documentary on the New York neighbourhood, “In Jackson Heights”; Amy J. Berg’s Janis Joplin biopic, “Janis: Little Girl Blue”; Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic, “I Saw the Light”.
The Festival also features a David Stratton-curated retrospective of Martin Scorsese films, which includes three fascinating Jewish characters: superfan Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) and TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in “The King of Comedy”, and mobster Sam “Ace” Rothstein (de Niro again) in “Casino”.
Other important Jewish personalities and actors appear: the late Jewish musician Lou Reed acts in “Heart of a Dog”, a creative documentary by his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson; Australian Jewish actor Tiriel Mora (“The Castle“) stars as Diego Rivera in Marion Pilowsky’s short “Frida and Diego – The Australian Years”; Daniel Radcliffe stars in Daniel Scheinert’s drama “Swiss Army Man”; and Ira Glass (presenter of “This American Life”) conducts interviews in the music/dance film “Contemporary Color”.
(Mr. Gaga poster below – original version in Hebrew)
(Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in “Weiner” documentary below)
(photo from “Land of Mine” below)
Footnote: The Sydney Film Festival also includes a personal appearance by Mel Gibson, who appears in the American comic thriller, “Blood Father”. Gibson’s Festival guest status follows his February Tropfest prize-giving appearance in Sydney. Is this a conscious attempt to resurrect his profile and reputation here in Australia, following his disastrous antisemitic comments during the promotion of his film “The Passion of the Christ”?