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.

Sydney Film Festival 2015

May 29, 2015

(This article on the Sydney Film Festival appeared in the Sydney edition of The Australian Jewish News on 28 May 2015.)

Because the Sydney Film Festival considers more than 3000 films for its program each year, and holds no quotas for any country, the selection of films with Jewish themes provides us with an insight into the modern Jewish experience: what issues are on the minds of us Jews – and others in the world? As the German-Jewish cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote in 1947, the themes that people choose for films are important windows into the subconscious mind of their present-day moment.

This year’s result is a mixed one, portraying a great range of Jewish personalities across time and space. There is one Holocaust drama, an experimental drama about Russian part-Jewish film director Sergei Eisenstein, and three documentaries about prominent Jews: a British pop singer (Amy Winehouse), an American fashion designer (Iris Apfel) and an American classical pianist (Seymour Bernstein).

Undoubtedly the Jewish highlight of this year’s festival is the German film “Phoenix”, directed by Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner Christian Petzold. Long-time Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Holocaust survivor whose face has been horribly disfigured. Set in immediate post-war Berlin, Nelly takes the opportunity to reconstruct a new face that allows her to pass un-noticed amongst those she once knew, including her husband, who may – or who may not – have turned her in to the Nazis. The result is a noir-ish mystery of personal identity, masquerade and strong drama.

The film “Amy” brings to screen the creative life and tragic death of British-Jewish pop singer Amy Winehouse. This stunning evocation of the troubled artist’s impact, relationships, music and legacy arrives in Sydney direct from Cannes, where it premiered two weeks ago, and prior to its international cinema release in early July.

The late Albert Maysles was truly one of the great Jewish documentarians, the co-director of classics like “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”. Although he passed away in March of this year at age 88, his final film is a biographical portrait of 93 year-old fashion designer Iris Apfel, a noted New York-born Jewish interior and fashion designer. Among other achievements, Apfel’s company, Old World Weavers, provided furnishings for every American president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. Maysles’ film, “Iris”, is her story, and a must-see for rag-traders.

Thinking man’s actor Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”) directs another Jewish biographical documentary, looking at the life of 87 year-old Seymour Bernstein in “Seymour: An Introduction”. Bernstein stopped his concert career abruptly at age 50 because of panic attacks, and this film touchingly charts his first performance in more than 35 years.

Fresh from this year’s Berlin Festival comes “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”, directed by Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) about time in Mexico spent by Sergei Eisenstein (“The Battleship Potemkin”) in 1930. This highly unconventional film features explicit gay sex, making it likely to be seen only at film festivals. The film industry weekly “Variety” calls “Last Tango in Paris” “tame” by comparison with Greenaway’s effort.

Two short films also contain Jewish themes: one from Israel (“Lama”, or “Why”) and a Palestinian-French co-production (“Ave Maria”) about an Israeli settler’s family whose car breaks down outside a West Bank convent.

Other films of interest include “God Told Me To”, a 1976 murder classic by Larry Cohen; “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, a tell-all documentary that the Church of Scientology has bitterly opposed; “Love and Mercy”, a bio-pic of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, co-written by Israeli Oren Moverman; and “Theeb”, a Jordanian co-production set in 1916 Arabian desert.

There is also a special “focus on South Africa”, with five films, including the classic 1973 “blaxploitation” film, “Joe Bullet”, made with an all-African cast and banned by the Apartheid government after just two public screenings.

(Image from the film “Phoenix”, starring Nina Hoss, appears below.)


Bruce Springsteen and I

December 2, 2013

He is only one of five people who have their own “category” on this blog.  He has been my favourite musician since 1983 – more than 30 years now.  It’s Bruce Springsteen.

Last night here in Australia, SBS TV broadcast the documentary “Bruce Springsteen and I”, a collection of delightful and frequently moving testimonials by Springsteen fans, interspersed with the man’s music.  Cleverly, in many cases peopled told a story about a certain concert that they attended and how they were called on by Springsteen to sing, or come up on the stage for a hug (he does that sort of thing) or whatever.  And we get to see the original footage as well, edited into their stories.

A truly moving experience for Springsteen fans, now on sale here in Australia on DVD.

And the boss does not stop.  He has a new album out on January 14, 2014:  “High Hopes”, recorded in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Australia and New York City.  (Astute readers of this blog will note my strong connections with three of those five places.)  The “High Hopes” tracklisting:

High Hopes tracklisting:

1. High Hopes (Tim Scott McConnell) – featuring Tom Morello

2. Harry’s Place * – featuring Tom Morello

3. American Skin (41 Shots) – featuring Tom Morello

4. Just Like Fire Would (Chris J. Bailey) – featuring Tom Morello

5. Down In The Hole *

6. Heaven’s Wall ** – featuring Tom Morello

7. Frankie Fell In Love

8. This Is Your Sword

9. Hunter Of Invisible Game * – featuring Tom Morello

10. The Ghost of Tom Joad – duet with Tom Morello

11. The Wall

12. Dream Baby Dream (Martin Rev and Alan Vega) – featuring Tom Morello

Can’t wait.

Australian Jewish film festival

October 3, 2013

It’s changed organisational structures at least three times in its 23 year history.  With a Jewish population barely reaching 100,000 spread over the whole of Australia, it nevertheless competes in box office and patronage with places with many more Jews.  It’s Australia’s Jewish festival, now called the “Jewish International Film Festival” (JIFF), which has just released its 2013 program.

There’s something about Jews and film that captures the imagination.  Perhaps it’s due to the colourful Hollywood moguls back in the 1930s – people like Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and the four Warner brothers (guess which studio they founded?).  Or maybe it’s just the interesting lives that Jews have lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, neatly illustrating the sly sting of the ancient Chinese curse that “may you live in interesting times”.  Do you need more proof that Jews and movies can stir controversy?  Look no further than the latest public arguments about Ben Urwand’s recent book Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler.

So it is with great anticipation that I look forward to this year’s JIFF, arriving on our shores with 51 features, documentaries and short films, almost all of them premieres.

You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the Jewish film festival.  But it sure helps.  Look at the names of the twelve categories of films:  All the World’s a Stage, Quality Schmaltz, Triumph of the Spirit, Coming of Age, Drama and Desire, Brilliant Minds, Haunted Histories, Power to the People, Reimagining Culture, Women on Film, Hamatzav and Living Dead.

“Schmaltz” is Yiddish for fat (literally), but figuratively is used to describe romantic or “soppy” movies or books.  “Triumph of the Spirit” is actually the name of a Holocaust survivor film, based on a real story and starring Willem Dafoe as former Greek Olympic boxer sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. “Hamatzav” is Hebrew for “the situation”, and for Israelis, there is only one – the matte of the Palestinians.  It’s an “inside” word that all Israelis know, and many diaspora Jews understand.

First up this year is Fill the Void, set in an ultra-Orthodox part of Tel Aviv about an 18 year-old girl who finds herself torn between love and duty when pressured to marry the husband of her late sister.  It has already played at the Toronto and Venice International Film Festivals.

What else am I looking forward to?  The comic documentary When Comedy Went to School, about American comic “legends”.  The Last of the Unjust, the latest documentary by Claude Lanzmann, who made the towering Shoah.

The Festival screens in Sydney from 30 October through 17 November, and in Melbourne from 6 though 24 November.  Check out their website for more detail.

Jewish Film Festival logo Aust

Stories We Tell film review

September 26, 2013

(A different version of this review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 26 September 2013.)

In a relatively short writing and directing career, Canadian film actor and director Sarah Polley has tackled some tough subjects, all of which have centred on the theme of adultery in marriage.  In the heartbreaking “Away From Her”, Julie Christie stars as a dementia patient who develops a romantic relationship with another resident of her nursing home, totally forgetting her husband, to his great dismay. “Take This Waltz” – the title is taken from the Leonard Cohen song – also portrays a marriage in crisis.  Seth Rogen stars as Lou Rubin, whose wife (Michelle Williams) leaves him for another man.

With careful plotting and emotional honesty, Polley’s first two directorial outings painfully detailed the impact of adultery on marriages.  But those earlier films did not have the challenge which Polley set herself in “Stories We Tell”, her documentary about her family’s history.  Polley’s interest in this film is not just artistic; it’s about the uncovering of a long-unacknowledged family secret – her late mother’s affair with a fellow Canadian actor.

And the story is very personal, because the adulterous relationship that “Stories We Tell” explores is one that produced Sarah herself.  The background is that Polley grew up believing that actor Michael Polley was her biological father.   Some years ago, after her mother Diane died in 1990, she discovered that her actual father was Harry Gulkin, a Canadian Jewish film producer with whom Sarah’s mother had had an affair while acting in a play in Montreal.  Ironically, the title of Gulkin’s most famous film, the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning “Lies My Father Told Me” (1975), has an eerie resonance to the “lies” that Sarah Polley was told about her real father when growing up.

“Stories We Tell” uses family archives, interviews with siblings and family friends, along re-created scenes from Sarah’s childhood to investigate this unravelling of family secrets.  Polley shot the recreated scenes with actors and a Super-8 camera, achieving a verisimilitude that adds profoundly to the impact of “Stories We Tell”.  But don’t be fooled: this is “manufactured memory”, based on the stories that people tell.

Transcending the limitations of the usual personal documentary, Polley is, we come to realise, asking some “big” questions.  Are we all just re-creating memories to suit our own purposes?  How much did her father know, and when did he know it?  Why did her mother never tell her?  These are great questions; the fact that we do not have reliable answers makes Polley’s film memorable, because she knows that each person is creating their own narrative to suit their own emotional needs.  Watching this film is about investigating a mystery for which there are no definite answers.

A number of fictional films have portrayed stories of “found” Jewish identity: the 2010 British comedy “The Infidel” explored what happened when a British Muslim found out that he was actually Jewish.  Unfortunately, Polley skips some of the most interesting parts:  what, exactly, does having a Jewish biological father mean to her?  The film shows Sarah at a Passover seder with Gulkin, but we never quite know if this new-found identity has produced any changes in her.

Does Polley’s fascination with adultery – reflected in both of her dramatic features, completed before “Stories We Tell” – result from her own personal history?  Was there any particular reason that she made the Seth Rogen’s character Jewish in “Take This Waltz”?  We do not know.

Despite – or perhaps, because of – these unanswered questions, “Stories We Tell” is likely to be one of the most memorable stories you will see on film this year.

Stories We Tell(photo:  Sarah Polley with Harry Gulkin)

The Battle for Brooklyn doco premieres on Australian TV

July 10, 2012

For those people living in Australia, you now have an opportunity to watch the Oscar-nominated (long list) feature length documentary The Battle for Brooklyn, which describes a lengthy redevelopment battle that took place in downtown Brooklyn.  I originally wrote about this film in a blog post last December.  The film premieres on Australian television on Sunday 15 July 2012 on ABC2 at 8.30pm.

In my most recent trip to the USA, I met Daniel Goldstein – effectively the star (and reluctant hero) of the doco and the story.  He gave me a tour of the areas of Brooklyn affected by the redevelopment.  Here are two photos which I took of Daniel near the new sports arena (sadly, now, under construction; they lost):


Here is a scene from one of the local streets, and another with the sports arena rising in the background:


And viewers in Perth have a special treat.  The Perth Film Festival actually screens this film this coming Friday, July 13th.  See it with an audience!

Touching, profound, personal, political.  Lest you think redevelopment battles died with Jane Jacobs (urban activist and author of one of the great books of my life, The Death and Life of American Cities) in the 1960s.  Jacobs, by the way, passed away in April 2006, just before her ninetieth birthday.

Goldstein lives, however, and a new generation of American urban activists takes heart from his brave and exhausting battle.

New film about Anna Halprin

April 25, 2010

The New York Times reports on April 23 that there is a new documentary about the dancer Anna Halprin.  Called “Breath Made Visible”, this 80 minute doco has just opened theatrically at the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street in Manhattan.

Anna Halprin is the widow of the late Lawrence Halprin, a famous Marin County landscape architect whose passing I reported on December 9, 2009.  I had taken an intensive workshop with Lawrence Halprin (at Sea Ranch and in San Francisco) in November 1977 (and did another one with him in Sydney in 1981 or thereabouts), and I recall from that workshop how much Anna had influenced his work.

The New York Times has a great online trailer, which includes samples of some of the astonishing footage in the well-made documentary.