Australian Jewish Film Festival returns in October

September 28, 2016

I very rarely reproduce a full press release on this blog, but there is one exception:  the Australian “Jewish International Film Festival” (JIFF), which runs this year from late October into mid-November.  It’s a total delight for those of us who are into Jewish film (and hey, who isn’t?).  This year’s description is below, headed by Denial, a fabulous drama based the experiences of Professor Deborah Lipstadt when she defended herself against Holocaust denier David Irving.  Details on the Festival below:

*****

Directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, L.A. Story) with a screenplay by David Hare (The Reader, The Hours), Denial stars Academy Award® winner Rachel Weisz as Professor Deborah Lipstadt who was sued for defamation by author and self-proclaimed historian, David Irving (Timothy Spall) for being referenced as a ‘denier’ in Lipstadt’s book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Aided by a first-class legal team, helmed by a brilliant, yet maverick barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt was tasked with proving that the Holocaust did happen in order to discredit Irving and clear her name.  Denial, which had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, will screen courtesy of Entertainment One.

Approaching the Holocaust from a different perspective is The Last Laugh, a provocative documentary that will screen on Closing Night.  Director Fearne Pearlstein looks at taboos and comedy and in doing so asks ‘how far’ comedy should go when delving into tragedy.  Acknowledging that comedy can play a cathartic and ultimately healing role, this insightful film examines the issue via comedic titans such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Larry Charles, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Chris Rock and the late Joan Rivers, along with survivors of the Holocaust including 91-year-old, Auschwitz survivor, Renee Firestone.

Complementing these two remarkable films will be 66 international premiere features and documentaries showcasing the cinema of 19 countries, including the globally fêted Israeli drama, Sand Storm, winner of Best Film and Best Director at the recent 2016 Ophir Awards (Israeli Academy Awards).  This Ophir triumph automatically qualifies Sand Storm to be Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards® and marks the first time that a film entirely in Arabic, rather than Hebrew, will represent Israel.

Here are just a few of the many other highlights to be found at JIFF 2016:

ABULELE                                                              Feature / Israel / 2015 / 96 mins / Director:  Jonathan Geva

Adam, a young boy grieving from the loss of his brother, discovers a mythical ‘Abulele’ – a furry and occasionally dangerous monster – living in his building.  But when Adam realizes that it is not the Abulele but the humans who are the real monsters, he risks everything to save his friendly giant. A resounding hit at the Israeli box office that was hailed as the Israeli answer to Steven Spielberg’s iconic E.T.

AIDA’S SECRETS                        Doco. / Israel, USA, Canada, Germany / 2016 / 90 mins / Directors: Alon & Shaul Schwarz

Questions of identity, resilience, compassion and the plight of displaced persons are brought to life as brothers Izak and Shep, who were separated at birth, travel to a nursing home in Quebec to meet their elderly mother, the mysterious Aida. A powerful sojourn into the past, steeped in layers of history and reverberating with untold secrets. Premiered at Hot Docs, and winner of the Audience Award at 2016 Docaviv International Film Festival.

ARTHUR MILLER: MAN OF THE CENTURY                            Doco. / Germany / 2015 / 60 mins / Director: Henrike Sandner

Born in New York in early 1900s to an immigrant family of Polish Jewish descent, Miller wrote his first play in college, and quickly rose to become a significant player on the Broadway scene, achieving further fame with his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. A portrait of this famed writer and creator, torn between glamour, success, social criticism and love, who left an indelible mark on the world today.

BARASH                                                                                    Feature / Israel / 2015 / 85 mins / Director: Michal Vinik

Set against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 17 year-old Na’ama is bored with her parents and sleepy suburban environment. But when a new girl appears at school, she sends shockwaves through Na’ama’s rigid domestic sphere, propelling her headlong into a dizzying world of sex and drugs. Described as the Israeli Blue Is the Warmest Color, Barash won Best Script, Best Actress and Best Actor at Haifa International Film Festival.

CLOUDY SUNDAY                                                     Feature / Greece / 2015 / 116 mins / Director: Manoussos Manoussakis

Inspired by real events and adapted from George Skarbadonis’ novel of the same name, Cloudy Sunday relates the forbidden love between a Jewish girl and a Christian boy during the German occupation in Thessaloniki in 1942. The only place to escape the hatred and inhumanity is a small club, where Vasilis Tsitsanis fills the hearts and minds of people with the beautiful rebetika folk music. Despite the resistance, the persistent hunt for the Jews gradually spreads and suddenly simple choices become life-changing decisions. Winner of 3 Awards, including Best Supporting Actress, at the 2016 Hellenic Film Academy Awards.

DARK DIAMOND                                                            Feature / France, Belgium / 2016 / 115 mins / Director: Arthur Harari

In Paris, Pier Ulmann lives from hand-to-mouth, but his monotony is shattered when his estranged father is found dead. The black sheep of a rich Jewish Antwerp family who dealt in diamonds, he has left his son nothing but the story of his banishment from the Ulmann family; a tale told to inspire vengeance. Determined to seek retribution, Pier travels to Antwerp and insinuates himself back into the family business… with dramatic consequences.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK                                            Feature / Germany / 2016 / 129 mins / Director: Hans Steinbichler

Based on the uncensored original diary, this film introduces Anne’s story to a new generation. With the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the situation for Anne and her family is fraught. In order to avoid deportation, they hide in a ‘secret annexe’ in the rear of a house in Amsterdam. It’s a claustrophobic existence between everyday routine and looming menace. Young Anne recorded all of this in her diary, describing her wishes, desires and fears as she came of age behind locked doors. Her clever observations and insightful descriptions have helped generations of young people to picture the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Premiered at Berlin Film Festival.

IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE                                                   Doco. / USA / 2015 / 97 mins / Director: Roger Sherman

This mouth-watering journey presents a portrait of the Israeli people through the food they eat and create. Celebrity chef-restaurateur Michael Solomonov embarks on a gastronomical mission; zigzagging across Israel to savour a food revolution rooted in centuries-old tradition by profiling the chefs, home cooks and gourmands, revealing the diverse and multicultural society that composes the fabric of Israel… and the traditions and tastes that define and unite them.

JERRY LEWIS: THE MAN BEHIND THE CLOWN        Doco. / USA, France, Australia / 2016 / 60 mins / Dir:  Gregory Monro

Jerry Lewis had the masses laughing with his visual gags, pantomime sketches and signature slapstick humour. Yet Lewis was far more than just a clown. He was also a ground-breaking filmmaker whose unquenchable curiosity led him to write, produce, stage and direct many of the films he appeared in.  Celebrating his 90th year, Lewis candidly reflects on his remarkable life and career, allowing audiences to rediscover this brilliant, yet deeply conflicted, man.

LESLIE’S JOUREY                                                        Doco. / Spain / 2015 / 75 mins / Director: Marcos Nine Bua

A tale of intrigue and glamour, this film recreates the days surrounding the 1943 death of British actor, Leslie Howard -a Jew, anti-Nazi propagandist and Hollywood heartthrob – who, alongside passengers including the head of the Secret Service in Lisbon and the director of the London Jewish Agency met his end on board a passenger aircraft that was attacked by German fighters. Was Leslie Howard a spy, or was his death simply tragic coincidence?

MIDNIGHT ORCHESTRA                                           Feature / Morocco / 2015 / 100 mins / Director: Jérôme Cohen-Olivar

Having left Casablanca as a child, Michael plans to visit his musician father only to find that he has died before their long anticipated reunion. Charged with conducting the burial, he searches for the former members of his father’s band in order to fulfil the old man’s dying wish and in doing so, finds friendship and rediscovers his cultural roots. Against a joyous ethnic soundtrack Midnight Orchestra expounds on Moroccan-Jewish life and generational divides with humour and heart.  Winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Montréal World Film Festival.

ONE WEEK AND A DAY                                                            Feature / Israel / 2016 / 98 mins / Director: Asaph Polonksy

Following the death of their son, Vicky and Eyal act outlandishly as they try to regain a sense of control over their lives, but learn that despite even the most painful of losses, the world stops for no one.  Premiering at Cannes Critics’ Week, and triumphing at the Jerusalem Film Festival with Best Israeli Feature, Best First Film and Best Script wins, this affecting and profound film continues to resonate with festival audiences across the globe and received 6 nominations at the 2016 Ophir Awards.

OUR FATHER                                                                                   Feature / Israel / 2016 / 107 mins / Director: Meni Yaesh

A small time gangster sees great potential in Ovadia, known as the strongest and most violent doorman on the Tel Aviv nightclub circuit. Subsequently offered lucrative work in debt collection and intimidation, Ovadia is pulled into a world of crime where he finds his moralities and beliefs tested as the stakes increase.  Winner of Best Actor Award at Jerusalem Film Festival, Our Father was nominated in 12 categories at the 2016 Ophir Awards.

THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER                                                 Feature / Germany / 2015 / 105 mins / Director: Lars Kraume

In this taut, historical thriller, Attorney General Fritz Bauer, himself a Jew, receives vital evidence on the whereabouts of the so-called ‘Architect of the Holocaust’, Adolf Eichmann.  Blocked by an unforgiving German government in taking the case to court, Bauer covertly elicits the help of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, to bring Eichmann to justice, and, in doing so, commits treason against Germany.   Winner of the Audience Award at Locarno International Film Festival, and of 6 Awards at the 2016 Lola Awards (German Academy Awards) including Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay.

THE PICKLE RECIPE                                                                   Feature / USA / 2016 / 97 mins / Director: Michael Manasseri

In this riotous comedy, we meet Joey Miller, the undisputed king of Detroit party emcees…who is also a single father drowning in debt. To make matters worse, during his latest wedding performance, all of his prized sound equipment is destroyed in a freak accident. And as luck would have it, his daughter Julie’s bat mitzvah is only four weeks away. In desperation, he turns to his shady Uncle Morty, who agrees to re-finance him, but under one condition: Joey must go and steal his grandmother Rose’s famous top secret pickle recipe which she has vowed to take to her grave.

PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW                                                   Doco. / Israel / 2015 / 80 mins / Director: Ido Haar

Winner of Best Documentary at the 2016 Ophir Awards, this homage to the power of the Internet in connecting disparate individuals chronicles the unlikely friendship between Israeli Youtube mash-up artist, Kutiman, and Princess Shaw, a troubled New Orleans singer.  By day, Princess Shaw is Samantha, a hard-working carer for the elderly in a tough neighbourhood, but by night she lets loose with vulnerable confessionals and capella performances that reveal a difficult past and fragile present. When Kutiman chances upon a Princess Shaw video online, her raw talent impresses him, leading him to use her in his next mix. When he publishes the song online, her life changes forever.

RABIN IN HIS OWN WORDS                                                    Doco. / Israel / 2015 / 100 mins / Director: Erez Laufer

Twenty years after the assassination that plunged Israel and the peace process into turmoil, Rabin In His Own Words is a moving firsthand account of the late prime minister and statesmen’s dramatic life story. Through a combination of rare recordings and documents, Yitzhak Rabin narrates his own biography; from his childhood in Tel Aviv as the son of a labor leader before the founding of the State of Israel, to farm worker, through to his service in the Israel Defense Force and his later diplomatic and political career.  Winner of the Best Israeli Documentary Award at the Haifa International Film Festival.

SAND STORM                                                                                        Feature / Israel, France / 2016 / 87 mins / Director Elite Zexer

In a Bedouin village in Southern Israel. Jalila is hosting an awkward celebration – the marriage of her husband to a second, much younger wife – while her daughter Layla frets about her recently unveiled and strictly forbidden love affair.  A story of tradition, modernity, and divided family, this superb feature portrays the layered relationship between mother and daughter, both bound by custom while struggling to adapt to a changing world. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinematic Dramatic section at Sundance and 6 Awards at the 2016 Ophir Awards, including Best Feature Film, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress.

THE SETTLERS                                                                                   Doco. / Israel / 2016 / 110 mins / Director: Shimon Dotan

The first film of its kind to afford a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, The Settlers offers a historical overview, geopolitical study and intimate look at the history of settlements in the West Bank, one of the world’s most contested territories.  Via a nuanced blend of interviews, historical context and archival footage this documentary gives voice to opinions from both sides of this contentious issue. Nominated for Best Documentary at the 2016 Ophir Awards.

STEFAN ZWEIG: FAREWELL TO EUROPE                              Feature / Germany / 2016/ 109 mins / Director: Maria Schrader

Austrian author Stefan Zweig was a cosmopolitan, a pacifist and a bonafide literary star who was, for a time, the most-translated writer in Europe.   Foreseeing Europe’s decline Zweig, accompanied by his young wife, left his native country in 1934; never to return. Moving between Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, New York, and Petrópolis, this timely drama powerfully recounts Zweig’s final years in exile.

SYLVIA: TRACING BLOOD                                                        Doco. / South Africa / 2016 / 60 mins / Director: Saxon Logan

Sylvia Raphael was born in Cape Town, South Africa, to an Afrikaner mother and a Jewish father; an unlikely beginning for a Mossad agent who came to infiltrate the inner sanctums of Israel’s foremost enemies. In tracing the trajectory of Raphael’s cloaked life, utilising testimony from friends, family and lovers, director Saxon Logon paints a detailed picture of a mysterious, captivating and alluring woman who formed an integral part of Israel’s secret service.

THE TENTH MAN                                                                         Feature / Argentia / 2015 / 80 mins / Director: Daniel Burman

Following an absence of several years, Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is summoned by his distant father to his childhood home in the bustling Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. Unfolding over seven days of colourful Purim festivities, the narrative follows Ariel’s attempts to reconnect with his father, a big macher in the Jewish community who had little time for Ariel growing up.  This heartfelt comedy/drama premiered at Berlin Film Festival, and saw leading man, Alan Sabbagh, win Best Actor in an International Narrative Feature Film at Tribeca Film Festival.

TREASURES: THE LOST JEWS OF KASTORIA 

Doco/ USA, Greece, Israel / 2014 / 93 mins / Directors: Lawrence Russo & Larry Confino

Renowned for its idyllic, coastal beauty, Kastoria was home to a harmonious and vibrant population of Jews and Christians. But when Axis forces invaded Greece, the Nazis took command of this city.  Illuminating the individual stories of the Sephardi Jews forced from their homes, this insightful documentary serves as a tribute to the many displaced communities afflicted by the Holocaust. Using never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with now scattered survivors, we’re presented with an affecting portrait of what was once a dynamic, Jewish community.

*****

Venues and dates for the 2016 Jewish International Film Festival are:

SYDNEY 26 October – 23 November Bondi Junction Event Cinemas
  27 October – 16 November Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace
MELBOURNE 27 October – 23 November Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick
  28 October – 23 November Lido Cinemas, Hawthorn
PERTH 26 October – 6 November Greater Union Cinemas, Morley
BRISBANE 10, 12/13, 19/20 November New Farm Cinemas
AUCKLAND 10, 12/13, 19/20 November Academy Cinemas
CANBERRA 10, 12/13, 19/20 November Dendy Cinemas

Full program for JIFF 2016 at: www.jiff.com.au Tickets on sale via the JIFF website and participating cinema venues from Friday, 30 September 2016.

Jewish Film Festival logo Aust


Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival opens in Melbourne

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival has opened in Melbourne, as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century.  Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”.  “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script.  “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The Bellboy(poster of Jerry Lewis’ film “The Bellboy”, shot on location in Miami Beach)


Melbourne International Film Festival features Jewish delights

July 31, 2016

(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.

Indignation(the cover of Philip Roth’s book “Indignation”)


Jewish themes in the Sydney Film Festival

June 2, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News – Sydney edition, on 2 June 2016.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Sydney Film Festival, the apparently random 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.  In short, the answer is that there are a lot of Jews both behind and in front of the camera, especially in the USA and Israel.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, possibly the most heart-breaking is “No Home Movie”, the last film by the late Belgian-Jewish film-maker Chantal Akerman.  As a dual portrait of both the film-maker and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor, this films poignantly captures Natalia’s final months – and tragically, Chantal’s as well.  The Festival also includes a screening of Akerman’s restored 1975 classic cult feminist film “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”.

This year two Israeli documentaries continue to showcase the dynamism and vitality of film-making from that country:  “Mr. Gaga”, directed by Tomer Heymann, and “Presenting Princess Shaw”, by Ido Haar.  Heymann – a Festival guest – spent eight years filming the subjects of “Mr. Gaga”, the internationally renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and his Batsheva Dance Company, which he has led since 1990, bringing it to international recognition.  This is edgy modern dance, brought to the screen with multicam footage, which “Variety” has called “the most exciting documentary … on modern dance since ‘Pina’”.  This film is a “must-see” for fans of modern dance or those interested in the cutting edge of the modern Israeli arts scene.

“Presenting Princess Shaw” reflects another kind of Israeli arts.  New Orleans aged care worker Samantha Montgomery writes and sings on the web as “Princess Shaw”.  Israeli composer, video artist and kibbutz resident Ophir Kutiel (known as “Kutiman”) creates YouTube video “mashups”.  This popular documentary charts how they have worked together.

“Weiner” is a different form of documentary, portraying the 2011 and 2013 meltdowns and sex scandals of former New York Jewish congressman and wanna-be mayor Anthony Weiner.  Made by two Jewish directors, Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner aide) and Elyse Steinberg, “Weiner” has been named by “Atlantic” magazine as “the best documentary about American politics in many years”.  Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is a long-time advisor to Hillary Clinton, and currently is the vice chair of Clinton’s Presidential campaign.  This proximity to real power – and the uncomfortable parallels between Weiner and Bill Clinton – gives this documentary a true current relevance.

The title of the Danish-German film “Land of Mine” (“Under Sandet”) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark.  Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans.  Although there are no Jewish characters or themes in “Land of Mine”, this powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

“Maggie’s Plan” is one of the festival’s most enjoyable films, a Woody Allen-ish dialogue and character-driven comedy of the sort we also now identify with Noah Baumbach.  Set in New York City and directed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Jewish playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, the film includes Baumbach favourite Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) as the befuddled Maggie, Maya Rudolph (daughter of Jewish composer Richard Rudolph) and everyone’s favourite Jewish character actor, Wallace Shawn.

The most interesting Jewish family to appear in this year’s Festival is that of the Suskinds in “Life: Animated”, a documentary about Owen Suskind (son of journalist Ron Suskind), a boy with autism who finds a way to communicate through Disney characters.

A large number films by Jewish directors are also represented in the Festival, including Steven Spielberg’s family blockbuster, “The BFG”; two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s documentaries “Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation” and “Miss Sharon Jones!”; octogenarian Frederick Wiseman’s documentary on the New York neighbourhood, “In Jackson Heights”; Amy J. Berg’s Janis Joplin biopic, “Janis: Little Girl Blue”; Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic, “I Saw the Light”.

The Festival also features a David Stratton-curated retrospective of Martin Scorsese films, which includes three fascinating Jewish characters: superfan Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) and TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in “The King of Comedy”, and mobster Sam “Ace” Rothstein (de Niro again) in “Casino”.

Other important Jewish personalities and actors appear: the late Jewish musician Lou Reed acts in “Heart of a Dog”, a creative documentary by his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson; Australian Jewish actor Tiriel Mora (“The Castle“) stars as Diego Rivera in Marion Pilowsky’s short “Frida and Diego – The Australian Years”; Daniel Radcliffe stars in Daniel Scheinert’s drama “Swiss Army Man”; and Ira Glass (presenter of “This American Life”) conducts interviews in the music/dance film “Contemporary Color”.

(Mr. Gaga poster below – original version in Hebrew)

Mr Gaga

(Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in “Weiner” documentary below)

Weiner film

(photo from “Land of Mine” below)

Land-of-Mine

Footnote:  The Sydney Film Festival also includes a personal appearance by Mel Gibson, who appears in the American comic thriller, “Blood Father”.  Gibson’s Festival guest status follows his February Tropfest prize-giving appearance in Sydney.  Is this a conscious attempt to resurrect his profile and reputation here in Australia, following his disastrous antisemitic comments during the promotion of his film “The Passion of the Christ”?

 


The Australian Jewish International Film Festival returns in October with two powerful lead films

September 16, 2015

I have been covering Jewish film here in Australia for more than 25 years, primarily for “The Australian Jewish News”. It has been a rich cinematic viewing and writing experience.

There is no better way to jump into the Jewish experience in film than through the annual Australian Jewish film festival, now called the “Jewish International Film Festival”, this year featuring 60 different films. It recommences in late October in Sydney (Bondi Junction), Melbourne (Classic Cinemas), Perth, Gold Coast and New Zealand.

JIFF is no “second run” festival, and has some of the best current releases.

I am most looking forward to Natalie Portman’s first directorial effort, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, based on the lyrical and profound autobiographical book by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, detailing his childhood in Jerusalem during the period leading up to and after the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel. Portman not only directs, but plays Oz’s mother Fania. Portman, you may recall, is the Israeli-born actress (who still speaks a fluent Hebrew), Harvard-educated actress who made her first splash in the first “Star Wars” trilogy.

It’s hard to over-state the impact of the Amos Oz book, written in a novelistic fashion, by possibly Israel’s greatest modern writer. At 600+ pages, it’s also a significant challenge to adapt to a single feature film, and the result – although possibly not perfect – is one of those “must sees” for anyone who feels that they must be part of the “Jewish cultural moment”.

My friend Tal Kra-Oz attended the Israeli premiere in Jerusalem, was impressed by the film’s ability to capture the look and feel of 1940s Jerusalem, and incisively analysed the challenges that the film faces in portraying Oz’s rich, lyrical and wandering prose.

The film has just screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and “Esquire” magazine writer Stephen Marche describes it as “a study of the moment when Jews changed from being a people in the diaspora to a people with a country”. Marche writes that “for American audiences, [this is] a new kind of Jewish film ….”. While 1945 was “the end of the story, for Spielberg” (in “Schindler’s List”), it is only the beginning for Portman.

From that time:

Far from being the redemption of history, was the founding of a crisis whose meaning has not yet been resolved. Israel was indeed salvation for the characters in “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, but what follows salvation? Portman’s movie could not be appearing at a better moment. The debates around Israel … so endless, so tedious, so removed from the actual realities of the country and its region … have always taken people as ciphers for political struggles they do not participate in.

His conclusion: “the most revolutionary Jewish movie since ‘Schindler’s List’”. (If that does not inspire to you to watch it, what will?)

My second most anticipated film of the JIFF is “Son of Saul”, a Hungarian drama (also at Toronto) that may just win in the February 2016 Academy Awards for best foreign language film. Just when we thought it was impossible to say anything new about the horrors of Auschwitz, this tale of a father who tries to honour his son reportedly devastates audiences with its power.

Not every JIFF film will have the impact of these two, but it’s an awfully good start. For more information, go to the Jewish International Film Festival website.

(below:  Natalie Portman in “A Tale of Love and Darkness”)

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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.)

PHOENIX 2013