Film review of The Zookeepers Wife

May 14, 2017

This film review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 May 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman; starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl and Michael McElhatton


“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a notable film about Jewish survival, but is not a film about Jews. Based on a true story of a non-Jewish Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of the Second World War, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman – is one of a growing number of dramatic films that tell the stories of Righteous Gentiles (think “Schindler’s List” and “Irena Sendler”).

The film opens in summer of 1939; an idyllic “Belle Epoque” Warsaw Zoo appears like a Garden of Eden, with strange animals running after their almost-rapturous keepers, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” & “Interstellar”) and Jan Zabinski (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), accompanied by their contemplative young son Ryszard. The Zabinskis love their animals, and New Zealand director Niki Caro does an extraordinary job of showing human-zoo animal intimate interactions, such as healing a sick young elephant (if it was special effects, I couldn’t tell).

The peaceful retreat doesn’t last. When the Germans attack Poland and bomb Warsaw, the zoo is decimated and lives are changed forever. The narrative is familiar: the Nazi occupation, attacks on the local Jewish population and development of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But what happens next is a first for Holocaust screen stories: Antonina and Jan grow a plan to slip Jews out of the ghetto and hide them in a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars at the zoo, creating an “underground railroad”. The pretext is raising pigs (the “treif” juxtaposition is not explored) for food by using ghetto garbage. A sub-plot involves the Nazi Director of the Berlin Zoo, Dr Lutz Heck (German actor Daniel Bruhl) attracted to Antonina. Other notable historical figures appear, including Dr Janusz Korczak, who ran a famous orphanage in the ghetto.

The film has a convincing production design (shot in Prague), fabulous animals and strong acting from the principals, especially Chastain, who rivals Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice”) with her Polish accent. Despite its strong Holocaust and war themes, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does feel tame at times; it’s rated “M” (“not recommended for children under 15”). Most violence and killing, including the animals, happens off-screen. This “soft pitch” film-making shouldn’t give nightmares, but does undermine the dramatic impact of what is still a great story.

(above: Johan Heldenbergh outside the set of the Warsaw Zoo)

Film review of Denial

April 13, 2017

This film review of “Denial” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 13 April 2017.

Directed by Mick Jackson; written by David Hare, based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt; starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall and Andrew Scott


Not long after American history professor Deborah Lipstadt published her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, she and her publisher Penguin Books was sued by British author – and noted Holocaust denier – David Irving for libel. The story of this court case becomes the film “Denial”, opening in Australian cinemas this week.

British libel laws operate differently than other countries: the defendant is presumed guilty unless they can be proven innocent and the burden of proof is much higher. Not only was Lipstadt’s credibility on trial, but also that of Holocaust scholarship, with Irving using the opportunity to promote his denial ideology by focussing on small “unproven” items that could cast doubts on the Nazi genocide.

This docu-drama illustrates real events over the period 1994 to 2000, based on Lipstadt’s memoir, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial” (previously “History on Trial”). The film opens with a confrontation where Irving disrupted a lecture of Lipstadt, and then recounts the court case itself, almost solely through Lipstadt’s eyes. We see her meetings with her legal team, with British Jewish community leaders and with an un-named survivor. Lipstadt is forced to watch the trial unfold without speaking out because her legal advisers focussed on making the case about Irving (who conducted his own defence) rather than about her.

“Denial” gathers a great cast of British actors, with Rachel Weisz – originally tipped for an Oscar nomination for the role – neatly capturing Lipstadt’s nasal New York (Queens) accent. Tom Wilkinson – one of the best character actors working in film today – plays Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, and Timothy Spall (the artist Turner in “Mr Turner”) inhabits the persona of David Irving in a form likely to burn itself in public consciousness as the definitive Irving. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in “Sherlock”) plays lead solicitor Anthony Julius, who in real life is one of Britain’s leading campaigners against antisemitism. Many important historians appear, including Cambridge academic Richard J. Evans (played by John Sessions) and Dutch scholar Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss).

The characters are delightfully drawn, the settings create a strong sense of place, particularly London and Auschwitz, which the defence team visits on an eerie, snow-covered and foggy day.

Courtroom dramas are a staple of modern feature films. From “Witness for the Prosecution” to “Judgment at Nuremberg” to “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Evil Angels” to “A Few Good Men”, the courtroom is ready-made for what the screen does well: illustrate conflict between adversaries, albeit without physical violence. Along with its wider themes of historical truth and the Holocaust, “Denial” sits within this genre, but the film never hits the “aha” moments that the best legal dramas require. This may be because of the known ending or the film’s requirement to stick closely to a trial that revolved around arcane historical research. Because Irving and Lipstadt have only one actual verbal encounter early in the film, the dramatic challenges of the film revolve around keeping Deborah Lipstadt from speaking out, not the most compelling drama.

“Denial” is a film about history and the nature of historical research.  History matters, this film tells us, because it tells us who we are and how we lived then.  But the law also matters, because it can confirm – or deny – one historian’s views in the official view of society.

(image below: Rachel Weisz in “Denial”)

(Note: “Denial” originally opened in North American cinemas on September 30, 2016.)

Early 2017 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

Many of the best films released in Australia arrive in early summer each year, coinciding with the release of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in late January and early February.  Watch out for:

January 12

Jackie:  Playing Jaqueline Kennedy is a big step; few Americans are held in such mythical regard as the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman (already nominated for a Golden Globe best actress) perfectly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance that is likely to place her sitting in the front row awaiting next February’s best actress Oscar choice. “New Yorker” film critic Anthony Lane calls “Jackie”, “a dance to the music of grief”:  this film is a slice of American tragedy.  Given the recent Presidential election and the fascination with “First Ladies”, “Jackie” may very well capture the current “zeitgeist political moment”.   Jewish TV producer Noah Oppenheim scripted, Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert F. Kennedy, Greta Gerwig plays White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Billy Crudup plays the historian Theodore H. White.  Jewish trivia:  The Forward reports that Jackie Kennedy spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Maurice Tempelsman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.  In common with President Bill and Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, Jackie’s daughter Caroline married a Jewish man.  The soundtrack of “Camelot”, which closes this film, was written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

January 19:

Lion, produced by Emile Sherman (Australian Jewish producer and Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”), is being tipped for Oscar considerations.  It’s a great – and true – Australian story, adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. Five-year-old Saroo finds himself alone and travelling on the wrong train away from his home in northern India. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away. He survives the streets, ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman (nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actress) and David Wenham, and grows up in Hobart.  The kicker to this story is that using his imperfect early childhood memory and new satellite-imaging technology, Saroo commences “one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times” – to find his family.  Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”; also nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actor) stars as the older Saroo.

Two other important films are due out in February or March, to be confirmed once Oscar nominations are announced:

Denial, the historical dramatisation of the court case brought against American Holocaust expert and professor Deborah Lipstadt, opened this year’s Australian Jewish film festival to powerful reactions. Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Sir David Hare (“The Reader”, “The Hours”), it is based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier about how David Irving sued her and Penguin Books for libel.  The film stars Jewish actress Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winner for “The Constant Gardener”.  Other actors include Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Land of Mine premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is being considered for a best foreign language Oscar.  The title of this Danish-German co-production (“Under Sandet” in German) 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.  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?

Other films to note in early 2017 include:

January 5:

Edge of Seventeen, an unusually high quality (and soon could be classic) teen film stars Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress Oscar nominee for “True Grit” (and nominated for a Golden Globe best actress).

January 12

Collateral Beauty, an absorbing drama about post-traumatic stress starring Will Smith, directed by Jewish director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada“) and written by Jewish screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”).

February 2:

In Patriot’s Day, a docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing from Jewish director Peter Berg, the theme of home-grown Islamic fundamentalism-turning violent terrorism remains highly contemporary (both the USA and Australia).  Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons star.

Bastards, a comedy from first-time Jewish director Lawrence Sher, who has been one of the most accomplished American cinematographers in recent years (not at profession that has attracted many Jews), and who grew up in “the Orthodox neighbourhood of Teaneck, New Jersey”. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play two brothers with an eccentric mother (Glenn Close).

February 16:

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.  Scorsese has created what will probably be one of the most significant religious history films in years.  Stars include Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.

March 30

The Ghost in the Shell stars Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in a sci-fi action film that will bring in audiences, based on the Japanese manga.

Table 19 is an American wedding comedy by Jewish director Jeffrey Blitz, who is an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Spellbound”. Anna Kendrick and Lisa Kudrow star.

April 6

In Going in Style, Zach Braff – the Jewish director of “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” – has created a comic heist/caper film, with a great cast including iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, along with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon and Christopher Lloyd.

denialImage above: Rachel Weisz (left) plays Deborah Lipstadt (right) in the film “Denial”; see Moment Magazine‘s article and also The New Yorker article by Tad Friend, 3 October 2016.


Boxing Day 26 December 2016 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

As Australia’s biggest cinema-going day of the year, Boxing Day (26 December) marks the unofficial beginning of both the summer holidays and entertainment season.  Here’s our pick of the Boxing Day films with Jewish personalities and themes to look out for.

Allied is made for fans of romantic war dramas (and seriously, who isn’t one).  “Allied” stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as secret agents – Canadian intelligence officer Max and French resistance fighter Marianne – who fall in love during a North African mission.  Set in Casablanca and London, “Allied” (the title operates with a double and possibly triple meaning) is directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) with energy and verve, tearing at many of the myths we have wanted to believe about wartime heroism.  The film’s big plot twist – a spoiler that any viewing of the film’s trailer tells you – involves the strong suspicion that Marianne is a double agent, placing Max in the distrusting “is she or isn’t she?” role, and forcing him to find the truth in the sort of ways you don’t want to treat the love of your life.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes that this film operates, “like [the film] ‘Casablanca’ in reverse. It’s about how the problems in this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans next to the troubles of two people in love.” Aside from the Casablanca setting, “Allied” includes prominent singing of “La Marseillaise” and other explicit references to the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman romance, but without references to Nazi persecution of Jews, just the personal challenges of the heroic couple. “Allied” comes across more like an Alfred Hitchcock film than one by Michael Curtiz (the Jewish director of “Casablanca”).  American Jewish actress Lizzy Caplan co-stars as Brad Pitt’s sister.

Rosalie Blum was the best-attended film in the 27-year history of Australia’s Alliance Française French Film Festival.  This delightful comedy features a central Jewish character (the titled Rosalie Blum), played in turn by Jewish actress Noémie Lvovsky, who is the accomplished writer/director and star of “Camille Unwinds”.  This first film by director Julien Rappeneau draws from a series of popular French graphic novels by Camille Jourdy.  The film’s warm comic exterior at first shields important messages about our need for connection in a disconnected world.  There is something so very “French” about this film, which sits as highly accessible “middle brow” entertainment.  Lvovsky’s co-stars include Iranian-French actor Kyan Khojandi and Alice Isaaz.  A crowd-pleaser for all French film addicts.

Why Him is likely to be one of the summer’s most Jewish releases, although has almost no Jewish characters or content. The creative team behind this broad comedy about an unsuitable boyfriend is a “who’s who” of contemporary Jewish comedy:  Jewish director John Hamburg has written all three “Meet the Parents” and both “Zoolander” films.  Jewish co-writer Jonah Hill has more Jewish comedy connections than almost anyone alive, and got his break on “I Heart Huckabees” through friendships with Dustin Hoffman’s children.  Producers Ben Stiller (need we say any more) and Shawn Levy – director of all three “Night at the Museum” films – are the Jewish “power couple” of contemporary broad US film comedy. Jewish actors also abound:  James Franco, 16 year old Griffin Gluck and Zack Pearlman.  Bryan Cranston, last seen playing the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, also co-stars.

And watch out for two other Boxing Day releases:

Janis: Little Girl Blue is an American documentary about the singer-songwriter Janis Joplin, by Jewish director Amy J Berg.  Berg specialises in “tough” subjects like sex abuse, pedophilia, and the African-American male “crisis”.

Red Dog True Blue: Five years ago, the film “Red Dog” became the eighth (now tenth) most popular Australian film ever.  The follow up “Red Dog True Blue” is a “prequel” and hopes to replicate the original’s success.  Daniel Taplitz returns as the screenwriter, with a cast headed by Bryan Brown.  This most Australian of “Oz” films also stars British-Jewish actor Jason Isaacs, who comes from a Zionist family (his parents live in Israel) and who describes Jewishness as his “core”.


(image above: Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt in “Allied”)

Film review of Cafe Society

October 21, 2016

(This film review of “Cafe Society” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 October 2016.)

Directed and written by Woody Allen; starring Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll and Ken Stott

As a master Jewish film-maker, Woody Allen is without peer in the history of film.  During the course of almost 60 films over more than 50 years, he has established numerous iconic Jewish characters and explored issues ranging from antisemitism to Jewish mothers and sons to Jews in show business to the Holocaust.

Despite numerous Academy Award nominations, Allen has not maintained the impact that he once had with some of his early hits like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”, films that implanted themselves in the collective subconscious of film-goers.

Allen’s latest film, “Cafe Society”, is set in 1930s New York and Los Angeles, and doesn’t break new ground, but minute by minute it is one of the funniest Jewish comedies in many years.  Most major characters in this film are Jewish, and being Jewish for them is a big deal, in their interactions with each other and with non-Jews.

The plot of “Cafe Society” revolves around Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who is arrives in California seeking help from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a successful Hollywood agent (big house, non-Jewish blond wife) who consistently pretends to be more important than he is.  Bobby starts to work for Phil, and soon falls in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who it turns out (not much plot giveaway here) is having an affair with Phil.

The action later switches to New York, where a now-older Bobby manages a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), the first Jewish crime figure we have seen on screen in a while.  As the young Bobby, Eisenberg channels Woody Allen in almost embarrassing ways, sounding so much like the young Allen that it’s creepy.  But as Eisenberg’s character gets older, those expressions fade and are replaced by a more solid, albeit naive and desperately earnest demeanour.   The plot loops slowly and gently, generally satisfying, but without great impact.  The delight here is in the telling, with the carefully drawn characters and lots of cute references to classic Hollywood films and actors.

Eisenberg has many of the film’s most delightful lines, including a hilarious conversation with a young woman (Blake Lively) where, within a few quick minutes, the dialogue successfully mentions just about every antisemitic stereotype imaginable.  In one of the film’s first conversations, one agent says how he “found Paul Muni” (a graduate of Yiddish theatre and one of the most prestigious actors of the pre-war period).  Allen includes one of his favourite scenes, a family seder (think “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) where all present get to chip in on a discussion about modern Jewish life.  Characters also frequently curse in Yiddish.

“Cafe Society” looks beautiful on the screen – it’s shot by three-time Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittario Storaro, although it does contain many classic Woody Allen themes, including an obsession with browns and yellows, and a cleanliness of locations that surely could not have been true at the time.  But in Woody Allen’s mind, that’s what life was like then.

The casting depth in “Cafe Society” is also delightful; Allen writes great characters and actors love playing them.  One highlight is the casting of Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s mother Rose, adding a new twist to the long list of powerful Jewish mothers on screen.  Berlin has a long history of playing Jewish characters, notably co-starring in “The Heartbreak Kid” (the 1972 original directed by her mother Elaine May, not the Ben Stiller re-make) as Charles Grodin’s spurned Jewish wife.  Other neat minor roles include British actor Ken Stott as Bobby’s father, inhabiting his meek Jewish father role with relish; Parker Posey as a sharp-tongued modelling agency owner; and the oh-so-precious interactions between Sari Lennick (Bobby’s sister Evelyn) and her intellectual Jewish husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken).

(image below:  Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Woody Allen shooting in New York City’s Central Park)


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.


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: Tickets on sale via the JIFF website and participating cinema venues from Friday, 30 September 2016.

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Film review of “Ben-Hur”

September 11, 2016

(This film review of “Ben-Hur” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on September 1, 2016.)

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, based on the novel by Lewis Wallace; and starring Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Haluk Bilginer and Rodrigo Santoro.


Certain stories in film and literature can persist for decades, resonating in each retelling or remake.  So it is with the latest film version of “Ben-Hur”, the first biblical-style movie epic released since “Exodus – Gods and Kings” and “Noah” both premiered in 2014.

This “Ben-Hur” draws on an impressive historical pedigree, going back to the original 1880 novel, entitled “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, by Lewis Wallace, a former Civil War general.  This is the fifth screen adaptation of Wallace’s novel:  the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston in the lead role won 11 Academy Awards and remains the most vivid in the popular imagination.

This “Ben-Hur” tells the fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur, played by Jack Huston (grandson of legendary film director John Huston and nephew of actress Angelica Huston), a “born to station” Jewish prince living in ancient Israel during the Roman occupation (“33 AD”).

Although a great horseman, Judah lives a soft life in an enormous villa with an extended family, having no apparent work to do other than racing his horses.  Judah has an adopted Roman brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), who has an identity crisis: while welcomed into the Ben-Hur household as a son, he also feels excluded because he is not Jewish.

After an incident where Messala is blamed for Judah’s near-fatal horse-riding accident, Messala runs off to join the Roman legions to fight in “Germania”.  Years later he returns to Jerusalem as a senior officer.  In the meantime, the “Zealots” have been causing trouble through guerrilla actions against the Romans.  Judah opposes this uprising, but faces a conflict.  He supports them as individuals but not as a political movement:  when asked by the now-Roman officer Messala to identify the Zealots, Judah replies, “I’m not going to name names”, a deliberate reference to the Communist witch-hunts in the USA in the 1950s and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”.

Judah’s support for an injured Zealot is his undoing, as the man who he shelters attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate, an act blamed on Judah.  This event results in the incarceration of the whole Ben-Hur household, with Judah sentenced to become a “galley slave”, rowing for years in the dank depths of a Roman warship.

Working from a script co-written by John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter”) provides some great action, but is less successful in developing the personal relationships that underpin the story and make us want to care about the characters.  These underdeveloped relationships may have resulted because of the film’s duration:  the three and a half hours of the Heston version is now cut down to two hours, but still needs to cover a lot of ground.

This latest version of “Ben-Hur” strives for authenticity, nicely shot in the ancient World Heritage centre of Matera in southern Italy, standing in for Jerusalem of Roman times, and the famed Cinecitta studios in Rome.  It’s no coincidence that Mel Gibson also filmed “The Passion of the Christ” here.

There are many pleasures in this “Ben-Hur”.  The film’s two major set-pieces, the naval battle and the famous chariot race near the end (where Judah and Messala face off), are thrillingly filmed using digital effects that were not available to earlier directors.  The addition of Morgan Freeman as a Nubian horse-racer is a total delight, bringing his authoritative personality, mellifluous voice and regal bearing: he has, of course, played both God and the President of the USA in previous films.

This “Ben-Hur” is more avowedly Christian than the Heston film, inserting more scenes of the Jesus figure than its 1959 predecessor, where Jesus’ face was never seen – a particularly effective technique to create mystery.  Although the majority of this “Ben-Hur” is straight action-adventure, Jewish viewers are warned: at its heart, “Ben-Hur” is a Christian film, drawing a number of scenes from the Christian Bible books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This latest “Ben-Hur” also does something new, consciously inserting imagery and action that compares the Roman occupation of ancient Israel with Nazi actions against the Jews.  Two scenes stand out.  At one point, Roman soldiers desecrate a Jewish graveyard for building materials, stones that we later see with faint Hebrew writing behind Pontius Pilate.  And most telling of all, after the attempt on Pontius Pilate’s life, the Romans execute 20 local Jews in retaliation.


A note on the history of “Ben-Hur”:  According to the US National Endowment for Humanities, Lewis Wallace’s novel was “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century”.  For more than 50 years after publication in 1880, it outsold every book in the US except the Bible, until “Gone With the Wind” appeared in 1936; the English language version has never gone out of print. Aside from the 1959 film version with Charlton Heston directed by William Wyler, there have also been two silent film versions (1907 and 1925), as well as a 2003 animated version produced by Heston, who also voiced Judah Ben-Hur’s character.  There was also a very popular play in 1899 that even travelled to Sydney and Melbourne, a 2009 London stage version, and a 2010 British-produced TV mini-series.

(below: image for the promotion of a 1901 stage dramatised production of Ben-Hur)