(This preview of the Melbourne International Film Festival -MIFF- appears in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 25 July 2019.)
Now in its 68th year, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) continues its record as one of Australia’s leading cultural icons with innovative and challenging films. This year’s Festival (1-18 August) highlighted an under-rated Jewish actor and a European Jewish director, and presented a divergent snapshot of how Jewish life continues to pervade contemporary international film.
MIFF featured what is surely Australia’s first “Jeff Goldblum Marathon” – 7 films and 14 hours of straight Jeff Goldblum programming overnight on 9 August: “Thor: Ragnarok”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, “The Fly”, “Earth Girls Are Easy”, “Independence Day”, “Vibes” and “The Tall Guy”. Goldblum comes with a strong pedigree: he was born in 1952, the same year as MIFF started. After an Orthodox upbringing in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York City to study with famed Jewish acting coach Stanford Meisner, who has taught everyone from Gregory Peck to Sydney Pollack to Jon Voight to Tom Cruise and Christoph Waltz.
By latest count, Goldblum has played Jewish characters at least 22 times (3 times as himself): 2 of the most important of these characters appear at MIFF: David Levinson the technology expert in “Independence Day”, and Seth Brundle in “The Fly” – the “very image of the Jewish nerd, a scientist with poor social skills.” Goldblum’s Jewish persona is so strong that “Tablet” magazine listed his complete film oeuvre as the “75th best Jewish film” ever.
Few directors have marked a reputation on dramatic Holocaust film as Polish film-maker Agnieszka Holland, one of MIFF three “Directors in Focus”. Born in Warsaw in 1949 to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Holland has brought an unusual perspective to Polish-Jewish history. Her nine films at MIFF include her three Holocaust classics. “Angry Harvest” – 1985 Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee – tells the chilling story of a woman on the run from the Nazis who finds shelter with a simple farmer, who develops a sexual fascination with her. “Europa Europa” – winner of the 1990 Best Foreign Language Golden Globe – dramatises the life of German-born Solomon Perel, who survives the war through Kristallnacht, the German invasion of Poland, residence in a Russian orphanage and – ultimately and incredibly – by acting as Russian-German translator for a German army unit. The film celebrates Jewish survival by showing the real Solomon Perel in Israel singing “Hine Ma Tov”, a scene that foreshadowed the final images of real-life survivors in “Schindler’s List” (1993). “In Darkness” – also a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, 2012 – is a realistic tale of heroism of a Polish worker who shelters a group of Jewish refugees in the sewers of Lvov.
Other highlights of the Festival included four unusual Jewish documentaries. British film-maker Nick Broomfield’s “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” poetically details the love affair between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra that resulted in “So Long, Marianne” and other iconic songs. Broomfield brings a unique perspective: in 1968, he travelled to Hydra, met and befriended Cohen’s lover and muse, Marianne.
“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary”, by Jewish film director Ben Berman, tells a bizarre story of how he shot a documentary on the “Freddy Krueger of Comedy”, John Edward Szeles,
The Israeli documentary team of Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam has again stepped out far from home in their documentary “Leftover Women”, examining the stigmatisation of unmarried young women in China. Other Israeli films included “Parparim”, a short comedy-drama Israeli film about butterflies; “Working Woman”, an Israeli drama feature about sexual harassment; and “Shhhh”, an short Israeli comedy-horror film about putting a baby to sleep.
In “It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story”, tells the story of how two Jewish refugees from Germany – Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff – founded the New York-based legendary jazz label Blue Note Records.
The comedy-drama “Benjamin”, by gay British-Jewish director Simon Amstell, is not a documentary, but could well have been: the main character is “a depressed film-maker with a penchant for men” – much like Amstell himself.
Other films of note: “Smoke Between Trees”, an Australian drama starring Jewish actor Tiriel Mora (“Frontline” and “The Castle”), brother of film director Philippe Mora; the 1969 Czech classic “The Cremator”, set in Nazi-occupied Prague; and Jewish director Ira Sachs’ “Frankie”.
MIFF also premiered possibly the biggest film about Hollywood to be released in many years: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”. Set in a hedonistic 1960s Los Angeles, the film features lots of real-life and made-up Jewish characters, including Roman Polanski (played by Polish actor Rafał Zawierucha) and fictional agent Marvin Schwarzs played by Al Pacino.
And speaking of Hollywood: MIFF also featured “Untouchable”, a doco about “the fall of Hollywood producing titan Harvey Weinstein is told through the testimony of the women he allegedly targeted”.