Jewish themes and directors abound at Melbourne International Film Festival

July 30, 2017

(This article appeared in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 27 July 2017.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF, 3-20 August), the 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.  This year there are lots of Jewish stories, with Jews both behind and in front of the camera in the USA, Russia, Poland, Israel – and Australia.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, the “must see” is the opening night world premiere of “Jungle”, a fictional re-telling by Greg McLean (Australian director of “Wolf Creek”) of the real-life story of adventurer and entrepreneur Yossi Ghinsberg, played by Jewish actor Daniel Radcliffe. The 22-year-old Ghinsberg travelled with two friends into the uncharted Amazon, but the dream trip turned into a nightmare from which not all returned. The film has been described as a “stunningly shot, edge-of-your seat story of survival and self-discovery …. entertaining, terrifying and deeply moving.” The Festival also features an “In Conversation” session with the real Yossi Ghinsberg and director Greg McLean, moderated by journalist Sandy George.

A different Israeli story features in the documentary “Death in the Terminal” by co-directors Asaf Sudry and Tali Shemesh, providing a tense, minute-by-minute account of mistaken identity and mob justice by recreating the events of a 2015 terrorist attack in Beersheva. Using CCTV footage, mobile phone videos and witness testimonies, real events unfold from multiple angles. (Caution: contains archival footage of real killings.)

Three fascinating films come from Russia – a contemporary thriller, a meditative documentary on the Holocaust and an early classic sci fi. “Closeness”, the feature debut from Kantemir Balagov, based on a true story is set in a Jewish enclave within a mostly-Muslim region of the Caucasus. The story follows Ilana (Jewish actress Darya Zhovner), whose family is rocked when her younger brother David and his fiancée are abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a large ransom. The program cautions that the film “contains archival footage of real killings”.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, draws on the “observational cinema” technique of Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Berlin-based Loznitsa frequently engages in Jewish topics and consciously named his film after the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz”, as it explores similar themes of memory and history. The film watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The black and white camera captures how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists act in these places. A true cultural commentary for our times. Loznitsa’s film “A Gentle Creature” – about the decay of modern Russia – also screens.

Many of the photographers and cinematographers in the Soviet Union until 1932 were Jews, including Jakov (Yakov) Protazanov, director of the ground-breaking 1924 silent “Aelita, Queen of Mars”. It was the first Soviet science fiction film ever made.

The rarely seen “The Man Who Cried” (2000) constitutes part of MIFF’s Sally Potter retrospective. Growing up in England, Russian Jewish refugee Suzie (Christina Ricci) befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett), gypsy horse-handler Cesar (Johnny Depp) and opera star Dante (John Turturro). The emotionally rich film follows Suzie through the Second World War to finding her father in America.

Two documentaries examine the experiences of Arab life on the West Bank. “Waiting for Giraffes”, looks at the only operating zoo on the West Bank. It’s a quixotic quest by zoo vet Dr Sami to build up the zoo and bring in new giraffes. In reaching out to his Israeli colleagues, the film posits hope for future friendly coexistence. Georgian-born Israeli film-maker Helen Yanovsky directs “The Boy from H2”, a 21 minute short about a 12-year-old Arab boy who lives in Hebron’s Area H2, a section of the city controlled by Israeli military; co-produced by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.

Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa” and “Angry Harvest”), born in Warsaw in 1948 as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who received a Yad Vashem Righteous Persons medal, won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear with the feminist ecological thriller “Spoor”. Also from Poland comes “Afterimage”, the final film from the late master Andrzej Wajda (“Katyń”, “Land of Promise”), which dramatises the final years of Polish avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński, who observed the Holocaust unfolding first-hand living in Łódź in war-time Poland. Strzemiński’s 1947 piece, a 10 collage work entitled “To My Friends the Jews”, combined drawings and photographs from both the ghetto and death camps, to become one of the most significant “pro” Jewish works at a time of great antisemitism in that country.

Other Jewish directors abound. British-born Jewish comedian Ben Elton premieres his first Australian film, “Three Summers”, set in a fictional West Australian rural folk festival. New York Jewish indie directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (the “new Coen brothers”) return with “Good Time”, nominated for the Palme d’Or at the latest Cannes Film Festival. Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” stars Debra Winger and Tracey Letts; “The Lost City of Z” from James Gray’s (“The Immigrant”) tells an Amazon story not unlike Yossi Ghinsberg’s; and Marc Meyers’ “My Friend Dahmer” stars Ross Lynch as the notorious American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

American Jewish documentarians represented in the Festival include John Scheinfeld “Chasing Trane”, about musician John Coltrane; Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral: The VR Experience”; Matthew Heineman “City of Ghosts”, about journalists and ISIS in Iraq; and Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip” about The Grateful Dead. Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz’s (“Legally Blonde”) “Step” charts stories of African-American dancers, and New York-based Israeli-born Shaul Schwarz’s “Trophy” explores the world of big-game hunters and animal rights activists.

Closer to home, MIFF includes a preview of ABC TV season 2 of “Glitch”, directed by Australian Jewish director Tony Krawitz. And Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”.

Also worth catching: a reprise of the 1956 classic American frightener “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel; Chilean-Jewish director Alicia Scherson’s “Family Life”, a  “delightfully strange, heartfelt look at mid-30s ennui”; “Porto”, with the final performance by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); and “Manifesto” a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.

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July 24, 2017

I have just published an article about the latest news coming from the for-profit vocational education and training (VET) sector in Australia. You can read it on the Community Colleges Australia (CCA) website here.

And it’s not too late to sign up for the CCA conference, happening in Melbourne this week from Tuesday evening, 25 July through Thursday 27 July.


Community Colleges Australia Conference features focus on young people

July 8, 2017

The education and training challenges and opportunities of young people features highly at Community Colleges Australia’s annual conference in Melbourne, 25 to 27 July.

As the CEO of Community Colleges Australia (CCA), I am proud of how we have constructed a comprehensive program stream for those interested in building better opportunities and pathways for Australia’s young people.

The conference recognises the vital importance that education plays in young people’s lives. Because of the strong community links and not-for-profit status of community education providers, the sector plays an essential role in ensuring that investment in Australian skills is both meaningful and properly targeted to young Australian learners and the communities most in need.

The young people program sessions include:

  • an expert panel discussing the growing phenomenon of secondary schools hosted by adult and community education providers;
  • the changing world of work, and what it means for Australia’s young people;
  • detailed examinations of the transition from school to training, further education and work;
  • how to re-engage disengaged young people in education, training and study;
  • An international focus, with speakers from USA, New Zealand and Malaysia providing a wider perspective on community education; and
  • the first-ever “Community Education Student of the Year” Awards, to be delivered at the Gala Dinner at the Windsor Hotel, featuring Aboriginal tennis coach Anzac Leidig, who will help present the awards.

The conference speakers talking on young people include:

  • “The workforce of tomorrow demands a new mindset”, by Bronwyn Lee, Deputy CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), who will draw on FYA’s research on the New Work Order;
  • “Building the Financial Capability of Indigenous Young People in the Northern Territory”, by (my former colleague) Duncan Poulson, Northern Territory Regional Commissioner, Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) – drawing on ASIC’s MoneySmart financial literacy expertise, a project that I worked on for almost two and a half years;
  • “Education and Regional Development: A view from American Community Colleges”, by Dr Roberta Teahen, Associate Provost, Ferris State University, Michigan USA, & Dr Laurie Chesley, Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs & Provost, Grand Rapids Community College. Michigan (Grand Rapids is a unique small city in central Michigan, one of the parts of the USA that narrowly “flipped” by voting for Donald J Trump in the last US election);
  • “The Brotherhood of St Laurence Study on Young People in the Private VET Sector”, by Kira Clarke, Lecturer in Education Policy, Centre for Vocational & Education Policy, Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne;
  • “Powering up the work of Flexible Learning Providers through strategic partnerships and networks”, by Louisa Ellum, Chair, Youth Affairs Council of Victoria & Chief Executive, International Specialised Skills Institute (ISS Institute);
  • “Empowering Positive Post-School Transitions”, by Nicholas Johns, Johns Consulting & ISS Institute Fellow;
  • “Learning with Passion for Purpose and Direction”, by Mana Forbes, Maori Elder, Hamilton, New Zealand, Tai Wanaga High School;
  • “Disengaged youth and community colleges – the perfect fit”, by Wendy Ratcliffe, WEA Foundation Manager and co-founder of WEA Hunter’s Alesco Senior College;
  • “Australian Apprenticeships: one pathway to a better future”, by Peta Skujins, Research and Content Officer, Australian Apprenticeships and Traineeships Information Service (formerly with NCVER); and
  • “Youth and Alternative Pathways – the Advance Story”, a report from Steve Wright, CEO, Advance Community College (Rosebud VIC).

The full program is now available here.

All speaker biographies are available here.

You can register for the conference here.

I would love to see you there. Our conference logo is below: