(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, in a slightly different format on 28 July 2016).
The 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (known by its cool acronym “MIFF”) opened last week. In its line-up of 250 features and documentaries from 60 countries sit a great array of full of Jewish film riches.
The strong field is led by “Monsieur Mayonnaise”, a feature-length documentary about the extraordinarily accomplished Mora family. Billed as “a tale about a comic book, Nazis, baguettes and mayonnaise”, this film follows Melbourne Jewish filmmaker Philippe Mora (“Mad Dog Morgan”, MIFF 2015 & “Swastika”, MIFF 1973) as he creates a graphic novel about his late father, Georges Mora.
Although the elder Mora is well-known in Melbourne as a patron of the arts and café owner, less is known about his work with the French resistance during World War Two and his efforts in saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis, which included a friendship with the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau, Philippe’s godfather.
A second heartbreaking documentary also comes from the Nazi period, “No Home Movie”, the last film by the late Belgian-Jewish filmmaker Chantal Akerman. As a dual portrait of both the filmmaker and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor, the film poignantly captures both of their final months.
A real crowd-pleasing documentary is “Everything is Copy”, yet another Jewish family “labour of love”. First-time film-maker Jacob Bernstein tells the story of his late mother Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally’, “Sleepless in Seattle”), including interviews with Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks. Jacob is Ephron’s son from her short-lived marriage to Watergate co-author Carl Bernstein.
The fourth great Jewish documentary at the festival is “PS. Jerusalem”, by Danae Elon, daughter of noted Israeli writer, the late Amos Elon. In this very personal film, the younger Elon charts three years of her family’s adjustment to the chaos of moving back to Jerusalem from the USA.
Also featured this year is an extremely rare special program of all 12 films directed by Jerry Lewis, the famed American-Jewish comic, actor, director, producer and philanthropist, in honour of his 90th birthday earlier this year (see separate post for details).
Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven Philip Roth novels have been turned into movies, also including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”), “The Humbling” (2014) and the most recent, “Indignation”, which has its Australian premiere at MIFF. Based closely on Roth’s autobiographical experiences of attending university in the 1950s, “Indignation” stars Jewish actor Logan Lerman as Roth’s stand-in, Marcus Messner, a working-class Jewish student from New Jersey. “Indignation” is keenly awaited by Roth’s many fans, and may be the best Jewish comedy-drama of the year.
There are many films by Jewish directors at the festival, including two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!”; octogenarian Frederick Wiseman’s documentary on the New York neighbourhood, “In Jackson Heights”; and Amy J Berg’s Janis Joplin biopic, “Janis: Little Girl Blue”. Of particular note is Laura Israel’s documentary “Don’t Blink: Robert Frank”, about the life of this Swiss-born Jewish émigré artist who has influenced generations of photographers and film-makers.
Another interesting documentary is “Life: Animated”, a documentary about Owen Suskind (son of Jewish journalist Ron Suskind), a boy with autism who finds a way to communicate through Disney characters.
The Festival also includes unusual screenings of two classic American films: Jewish writer-director Elaine May’s “A New Leaf” (1971), starring May and Walter Matthau; and Claudia Weill’s classic 1978 woman’s “coming of age” Jewish romantic comedy-drama, “Girlfriends”. Jewish actress Melanie Mayron (“thirtysomething”) won a BAFTA award for her role as a bar mitzvah photographer who develops a crush on a rabbi (played by Eli Wallach), and eventually finds her own way in the world.
The late and much beloved Jewish musician Lou Reed acts in “Heart of a Dog”, a creative documentary by his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson; and Ira Glass (presenter of “This American Life”) conducts delightful interviews in the music-dance film “Contemporary Color”, a behind-and-in-front-of-the scenes David Byrnes American stadium spectacular.