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


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”)

A Tale of Love and Darkness 0678

 


German Film Festival in Australia 2015

May 7, 2015

(This article on the Goethe Institute’s “Audi Festival of German Films” first appeared in a shorter version in the “Australian Jewish News” on 30 April 2015.)

There is no doubt that Germany has gone to great lengths to confront its Nazi past, and nowhere is that more evident than in the activities of the Goethe Institute, the official German international cultural organisation. The biggest event run by the Goethe Institute here in Australia is the annual Festival of German Films.

This year, the festival features three films of significant Jewish interest: a documentary about German film during the Weimar period, a documentary about a famous house in Czechoslovakia and a German-Israeli drama.

Certainly the true Jewish highlight of this year’s Festival is the documentary “From Caligari to Hitler – German cinema in the age of the masses”, directed by journalist Ruediger Suchsland. It is based on the book “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film”, a 1947 book by Siegfried Kracauer that examined the history of German film during from 1895 to 1933.

Kracauer was a notable German Jewish film critic, journalist and philosopher who fled Germany in 1933, eventually settling in New York City, where the Museum of Modern Art funded the book’s writing. Close friends with noted Jewish philosophers Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno (part-Jewish), Kracauer’s book is considered a classic of film historiography, interweaving social and political theory and positing that the rise of Nazism was foreshadowed in the films of the 1920s.

The documentary includes great clips from “The Golem” (perhaps the most famous of all German-Jewish films), “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, “M”, “Metropolis”, “Nosferatu”, “The Blue Angel” and other classics of the time. It also features interviews with director Volker Schlondorff, historians Thomas Elsaesser and Erik Weitz and director Fatih Akin, who is of Turkish background. (Included in the Festival is Akin’s film “The Cut”, set in about Turkish persecution of Armenians in 1915 Turkey.)

Other than Kracauer’s thesis, the Jewish significance of this documentary is that until the rise of the Nazis, German film was, quite simply, the best in Europe, an excellence powered by Jewish directors, writers, producers, actors and cinematographers. At the end of the “From Caligari to Hitler” film, the credits list a number of German film personalities of the period who left Germany, primarily fleeing the Nazis in 1933. This list includes well-known names such as Ernest Lubitsch, Max Ophuls, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Peter Lorre, Robert and Curt Siodmak and Josef von Sternberg, but also a number of lesser known figures like cinematographers Karl Freund and Eugen Schüfftan, critic Lotte Eisner, directors Richard Oswald and Edgar Ulmer, actors Dita Parlo and Elisabeth Bergner, writer Carl Mayer, writer-directors Paul Czinner (husband of Bergner) and Richard Oswald, and composer Werner Richard Heymann. (Even Fritz Lang’s mother was born Jewish.) Many of these people were featured in the 2008 PBS documentary “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood”.

Perhaps the most famous of the between-the-wars German films was the 1920 silent horror film “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, produced by Erich Pommer (Jewish), who also produced “The Blue Angel”, which co-starred Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, playing opposite Marlene Dietrich.  As one of the richest periods of European-Jewish cultural achievement, this period is truly worth celebrating. My critique of Suchland’s documentary is that, if anything, he follows Kracauer’s psycho-social thesis too closely, and does not pay sufficient attention to other factors influencing films at that time, and never really asks the question what did it mean that so many of the key players were Jewish. The English language subtitled narration is also excessively (and sometimes hilariously) dense, but I suspect that’s the way that German film theorists may actually talk.

Another Festival documentary, “Haus Tugendhat”, tells the story of a Mies Van Der Rohe-designed house in the city of Brno, Czech Republic. Originally built in 1929 for the Tugendhats, a Jewish family, this film examines both the history of the house – a classic modern architectural design – and its original owners.

The dramatic feature “Anywhere Else”, directed by Israeli-born Esther Amrami, tells what could be a partly autobiographical story of Noa, an Israeli woman who is graduating a university in Berlin with a masters thesis on untranslatable words, possibly a good metaphor for her split life. Noa impulsively returns to Israel on a visit, and her dilemmas all come to a head on Yom Hazikaron, in both comic and dramatic ways. It’s a slight film, but notable in how it deals with the Israeli expatriate experience.

******

The “Audi Festival of German Films” runs in Australia from 13 May through 31 May 2015 in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Byron Bay. Go to the Festival website for details.

 

From Caligari to Hitler_(c)Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin(still from “From Caligari to Hitler”)

HERO_Haus_Tugendhat_17© Goethe Institut copy(“Huis Tugendhat”)


Film review of The Farewell Party

October 30, 2014

(This film review of “The Farewell Party” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on October 23, 2014.)

Directed by Tal Granit and Sharom Maymon

Starring Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkelshtein, Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar and Rafi Tabor

Further proof that Israeli film has gone “mainstream” arrives with the black comedy “The Farewell Party” (Hebrew: “Mita Tova”), part of this year’s Jewish International Film Festival here in Australia. This unusual story features a group of elderly Jerusalem aged care home residents who build and successfully operate a euthanasia machine to help the desperate to die.

Conventional film-making usually ignores films about ageing and dying: how do you turn the depressing into an uplifting story?  “Benjamin Button” did it through inverting the chronology, “Harold and Maude” through a May-December relationship and the characters in “Cocoon” found eternal life.  But “The Farewell Party” is more grounded in the reality of death and dying.

The opening scene sets the comic tone:  former engineer Yehezkel enjoys “playing God” by ringing a very elderly woman, comforting her by using a voice synthesiser to sound like the Almighty.  However, his devoted wife Levana is in early – and rapidly increasing – stages of dementia, and their close friends Yana and Max are facing a crisis, with Max in the final painful stages of life.  With the assistance of Dr Daniel, a veterinarian in their building who knows quite a lot about “putting down” animals, their team is complete to grant Max his wish.  (The Australian angle is that the euthanasia machine constructed by Yehezkel is based on one popularised by Philip Nitschke, the Australian doctor who has long advocated the practice.)

The cast is wonderful, filled with many of the ageing greats of Israeli film and theatre.  There are also a number of wonderful and slyly funny scenes:  one character decides to come “out of the closet” as gay; the friends scheme to fool hospital staff monitoring by switching the equipment; and they farewell a lung cancer patient through a smoking party.

Ultimately, the film becomes quite serious: who are they, exactly, to play God in this way?  Facing these ethical and moral dilemmas, particularly once their “technique” is known and appears in demand, is a conundrum that the characters are not prepared for.  The topic is challenging, and – despite many great moments – the film-makers never quite achieve a balanced tone in “The Farewell Party”, varying between the darkness of “Amour” to the lightness of “Cocoon”.  The result is a good, although not great film.

The Farewell Party


Film review of Gett – The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

October 30, 2014

(This review of “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” appeared in a slightly different form in the Australian Jewish News on 23 October 2014.)

Directed and written by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz

Starring Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabay and Eli Gorstein

There are few more dramatic moments captured on film than courtroom interplay, seen in the best courtroom dramas such as “Twelve Angry Men”, “A Few Good Men” and “To Kill A Mockingbird”.  But despite the many thousands of Jewish films over the past 100 years, there has only been one great Jewish courtroom drama – “Judgment at Nuremberg”.

That was then.  Now there’s a second one, and it’s the opening night film in the Jewish Film Festival.  “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is nothing but courtroom drama:  no exteriors, no back story and no historic replays.

At its simplest, “Gett” is Viviane’s (Ronit Elkabetz) attempt to get a Gett, the religious Jewish divorce, from her passive-aggressive husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian).  The action takes place over five years, with countless appearances by Viviane with her advocate Carmel Ben Tavin (Menashe Noy), a secular son of a noted rabbi.  Despite the long-term separation and the clear breakdown of their marriage – they seem temperamentally unsuited in all ways – Elisha steadfastly refuses the divorce, even when ordered to by the three rabbinic judges, and is even willing to suffer a short stay in jail.

The point of “Gett” is crystal clear:  women, at least in matters of marriage and divorce, are second-class citizens in Israel, and are effectively powerless.  Viviane rarely speaks in court, and is a virtual bystander in decisions on her own fate.  As Viviane, Ronit Elkabetz gives a breathtaking performance of controlled fury.  She also co-directed and co-directed the film with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz.  This is the third of their trilogy about the Amsalems with the same characters, following “To Take a Wife” and “The Seven Days”.  But “Gett” can be appreciated on its own.

Courtroom dramas are ostensibly about justice, but what drives the action and most engages the viewer is really character, specifically the clash of characters:  the judges, the witnesses, the lawyers and those on trial.  And this is where “Gett” shines: a tight script (in Hebrew, French and Arabic) gives these characters much to say and do.  Through the Amsalems and their advocates, relatives, friends and neighbours, we see a superb portrayal of Israeli society, one frequently infused with moments of black humour.   Brilliant in all ways.

Gett Trial of Viviane Amsalem


Australian Israeli Film Festival – August 2014

August 17, 2014

I am old enough to remember when the 1984 prison drama “Beyond the Walls” became the first Israeli film to obtain a significant theatrical release here in Australia. What a moment that was for a fledgling film industry for which even the word “industry” was an overstatement.

How things have changed. By my calculation, some 13 Israeli films have now been nominated for Academy Awards: ten features for “best foreign film” (*) and three documentaries (**). This makes Israel the tenth most nominated country in the world. Pretty good, considering that it had such a late start.

But one of the biggest changes is that we in Australia now have access to the latest Israeli films (and not just random late night SBS TV viewings) through the annual “AICE Israeli Film Festival”, now in its eleventh year. The AICE (Australia-Israel Cultural Exchange) operates in as a genuine exchange, bringing Israeli films to Australia, and in turn taking Australian films to Israel.

The AICE Festival opens in Australia this coming week, running at various times in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

Of this year’s films, “The Second Son” (also known as “Dancing Arabs”) is one of my favourites. Coming directly from a rapturous reception at the Jerusalem Film Festival,  this film is directed by Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”, “The Syrian Bride”), based on two of Sayed Kashua’s bestselling novels. We follow the story of an Arab boy attending a Jewish boarding school, and dealing with crushing cultural challenges. (Below: The Second Son)Second Son photo

In fact, a large number of this year’s festival films deal sensitively with Israeli-Arab relations: “Self-Made” (the opening night film) is a black comedy in which a working class Arab woman and an upper-middle class Israeli artist have a bizarre mix-up at the Israel-Palestinian Territory border.  “The Green Prince” is an extraordinary documentary about a Palestinian and his unusual relationship with his Shin Bet (secret police) “handler”.  “Under the Same Sun”  posits that peace is possible between Israelis and Arabs, through cooperative business (this film won a recent award at the Peace on Earth Film Festival).

Like most film-makers around the world, Israeli film-makers usually sit on the “left” side of politics, and their films often provide highly critical viewpoints on the conflict with Palestinians (and social commentary generally), providing insights and a “human face” that are rarely, if ever, shown on the nightly news cycle. Thus attempts to boycott Israeli films (which have been growing in the wake of the recent Gaza war) are, if anything, oddly self-defeating. These film directors show parts of Israeli society and how Israelis really think and interact with Arabs, going far beyond usual assumptions. Attempts to silence their voices are unfortunate at best and deeply troubling.

Many of the other Israeli obsessions are showcased at the festival, including folk-dancing (“Hora 79”), the conflict between religious and secular (“In Between”), Holocaust survivors (“Anita B”), former Nazis (“Mr Kaplan”), art stolen by the Nazis (“The Art Dealer”), Jewish refugees from Arab lands (“Shadow in Bagdad”) and national commemoration (“The Ceremony”).

(*) The ten features are Sallah (1964), The Policeman (1971), I Love You Rosa (1972), The House on Chelouche Street (1973), Operation Thunderbolt (1977), Beyond the Walls (1984), Beaufort (2007), Waltz With Bashir (2008), Agami (2009) and Footnote (2011).
(**) The three documentaries are The 81st Blow (1974), The Gatekeepers (2012) and 5 Broken Cameras (also 2012).

Self Made photo(Above:  Self Made)

Next to Her(above:  Next to Her)

Kindergarden Teacher(above:  Kindergarten Teacher)

 


Film appreciation in a time of war

July 20, 2014

Did you ever wonder what it’s like to attend a film festival in a time of war? Tal Kra-Oz’s recent article in Tablet  (18 July 2014) gives a good, insider’s perspective of this month’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where screenings are interrupted by sirens and the obligatory temporary removal to basement rooms filled with old film reels.

Israel’s artistic elite – of which film-makers are a solid part – are notably more left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the majority of the population.  Thus, the pall cast on this year’s Festival is yet another tragic by-product of the Israel-Hamas conflict now taking place.

But, as Kra-Oz writes, the show does indeed go on: “even when the cannons and sirens are heard, the muses are anything but silent”.

And what a show the Israelis had to boast about. In a country of just 7.8 million people, last year the country produced and released 40 feature films.  In the May Cannes Film Festival, seven Israeli films had official screenings: five features, one documentary and one student film.  Compare that to Australia, almost three times as large (population 23,537,000) , which released 26 films in 2013 and had three films in official Cannes categories (The Rover, Charlie’s Country and These Final Hours).

Kra-Oz’s article captures the spirit of the dynamism of Israeli film-making.  How this relates to the country’s on-again, off-again conflict with the Palestinians is clearly complicated and overlaid with more than 100 years of history.

After some 22+ years of unbroken economic growth, is life too good for us here in Australia?  Do we not have enough to worry about to make good films?  It may be no coincidence that Australia’s greatest success at Cannes this year was Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, in which lead Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil – playing a role in part based on his own life – won the “best actor” award in the “Un certain regard” competition.   Indigenous Australians are among this country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and those living in remote regions – such as Gulpilil’s character – even more so.

David Gulpilil(photo above:  David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country)