Jewish film in Australia article for Jewish Renaissance

Published 2003 in Jewish Renaissance (UK)

Although the Jewish community in Australia is small – officially estimated to be about 86,000, but widely thought to number at least 100,000 – it is one of the few Jewish communities in the world outside of Israel which is growing.  While this is due mostly to immigration (from South Africa and elsewhere), it gives Australian Jews a dynamism and confidence which other small Jewish communities might not have.

This energy is reflected in many ways, including film:  Australia boasts one of the world’s most successful Jewish film festivals, operating since 1990 and consistently gaining audiences exceeding those of Jewish film festivals around the world where the Jewish populations are much larger.  Australia also has an institution unique in the English-speaking world:  SBS Television, Australia’s national (government-owned) “multicultural” broadcaster.  SBS has co-produced and co-funded a large number of films of Australian Jewish interest, and frequently broadcasts movies in Hebrew (recent ones include Sallah, Kippur, Kadosh and Jana’s Friends) and, more recently, Yiddish (Green Fields, The Dybbuk).  We must be the only country outside of Israel where Hebrew can be heard on free-to-air TV broadcasts.

But what of Australian Jewish film:  film-making which reflects the Australian-Jewish experience?  Traditionally there has been very little, for which commentators have searched for explanations.  We simply have not had the films about growing up Jewish in Carlton (a Melbourne suburb) or Bondi (Sydney’s famous beach).  Why not?  Partly it is numbers – only 100,000 Jews out of a population of 19 million is simply not a large body of experience, but another suggestion is the perennially fragile state of the Australian film industry.  Popular Australian films have either played on iconic Australian bush myths (Crocodile Dundee, The Man From Snowy River) or promoted kooky images (Mad Max, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert).

Others suggest that Australian Jewish writers have traditionally been unwilling to expose their own stories in the way that Woody Allen helped to create an American Jewish film stereotype.  During Australia’s great boom time of “new” film-making in the 1970s and 1980s, only one film – Henri Safran’s Norman Loves Rose (1982) included significant Jewish characters, in a suburban domestic comedy.

Another explanation may be demographics:  Australia’s Jewish community – particularly in comparison to the USA – is younger, and more recently arrived, with a significant part arriving after World War II (many as Holocaust survivors or refugees from Europe).  The concern was on “making it” in a new land, and there were few economic opportunities in film:  unlike the situation which faced the early “film Jews” in America in the early part of the twentieth century.

It is interesting to note that the only major “non-Anglo” film character which appeared in an Australian film between the wars was Jewish comedian Roy Rene in Strike Me Lucky (1936, directed by Ken G. Hall).  Rene played his character of “Mo” with the same bawdy humour as he had on stage:  as a gross, loud-mouthed, heavily caricatured Jew.  Although Rene was enormously popular on stage and radio, Strike Me Lucky failed at the box office, the only one of Ken Hall’s 1930’s pictures to do so.

But something has been happening, slowly and surely, and picking up speed.  Two television mini-series made in 1985 probably marked the beginning. The Dunera Boys (Bob Weis/Ben Lewin) is a (true) Holocaust story of misplaced German Jewish refugees shipped to Australia by the British; and Sandra Levy’s Palace of Dreams is based on her own migrant family’s experiences in running a hotel in the 1930s.

Increasingly, Australian Jewish film-makers have trying to tell their stories, and the documentary form has proved much easier to utilise.  Good examples of this include Aviva Ziegler’s What is a Jew to You?, Monique Schwartz’s Bitter Herbs and Honey (about Jewish life in Melbourne in the early 20th century), Rivka Hartman’s biographical portrait of her mother The Mini-Skirted Dynamo, Marc Radomsky’s Choosing Exile story of his family’s migration from South Africa, and Uncle Chatzkel – Rod Freedman’s investigation of immigration and family disassociation between three continents.

In Shine (1996), in an Oscar-winning performance, Geoffrey Rush starred as David Helfgott, a psychologically tormented and gifted Australian Jewish pianist .  While many non-Jews did not recognise this story as a Jewish one, Jews certainly did.  Another recent Australian “Jewish” film is the low-budget Russian Doll (2001), written by Russian migrant Alanah Zitserman.

Zitserman is indicative of a new wave of young Australian-Jewish film-makers, many of them under 35, who are starting to make their mark on the industry, and who will eventually be telling their own stories – or other Jewish stories.  These young film-makers include Mark Lazarus and Paul Goldman, producer and director respectively of Australian Rules, widely regarded as one of the best Australian films of 2002; Jonathon Green, producer of the youth feature Angst; and Jonathan Shteinman and Emile Sherman, Executive Producers of the highly acclaimed Rabbit Proof Fence (also 2002).

A number of institutions are encouraging the development of Australian Jewish stories. The Jewish Museum of Australia (located in Melbourne) has provided a home for the ongoing successful Jewish film competition “Celluloid Soup”.  A few years ago, a Sydney Jewish film competition was organised by the NSW Friends of the Hebrew University, with sponsorship from Fox Studios Australia.  Sydney’s Jewish Arts and Culture Council has sponsored and organised countless film events since its commencement in 1989.   Australia has even signed an official “co-production treaty” with Israel.  (This has been utilised with the film $9.99, which opened in 2009.)

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