Sydney Film Festival 1998

(Published in the Australian Jewish News, June 5, 1998)

With two hundred films from thirty-four countries, the 1998 Sydney Film Festival is an extraordinarily rich film experience, cementing Sydney’s reputation as one of the world’s best cinema cities.  This year there are five Jewish-themed documentaries, from Australia, Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands and the USA.

Curtis Levy is a Sydney-based documentary maker, whose latest film HEPHZIBAH has its world premiere at the Festival, telling the story of Hephzibah Menuhin, Yehudi’s older sister.  Speaking this week before the Festival commences, Levy noted that “there must be at least twenty documentaries about Yehudi, but none about his equally talented sister”.  A child prodigy like her brother and younger sister Yaltah, from a young age Hephzibah toured the world giving piano concerts.  Her father had been a Hebrew school headmaster in Europe, until he gave it up to manage his children’s careers.  In 1938 and at age 18, she and Yehudi gave a concert at Albert Hall in London; after it, they were introduced to an Australian brother and sister, Lindsay and Nola Nicholas – heirs to the Aspro fortune.  Within two weeks, Yehudi was engaged to Nola and Hephzibah to Lindsay.  She moved to Lindsay’s sheep station Perinallum, in the Western Districts of Victoria, and continued to give concerts, mostly in Australia.

Hephzibah had two children with Lindsay, but her life changed after the second world war, following her visit to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.  No longer wishing to live a privileged life, she met and married Austrian sociologist Richard Hauser, with whom she had a third child.  They moved to London and established a Centre for Human Rights in order to “save the world”.

Director Curtis Levy (who will appear at the Festival with his film) found his way to Hephzibah’s story through some very personal connections:  his mother Joan Levy was Hephzibah’s best friend in Australia, and he has stayed friends with her oldest child, Kron Nicholas.  The result is a most personal exploration of Hephzibah’s psyche, benefiting from access to the family’s wealth of home movies and photos.    There is no narration, but actress Kerry Armstrong does voice-over reading of Hephzibah’s letters, for she was a most prolific letter-writer.  Levy is Jewish only on his father’s side and had no childhood Jewish identification, but feels “a strong affinity with Judaism”.  He is currently planning a film about Roni Levi, the French-Jewish photographer who was shot and killed by police on Bondi Beach a year ago.

There are few more interesting subjects to me than that of Hollywood Jews.  Following a recent “sneak” screening at the Brisbane documentary conference, the Festival is the first time that Australian audiences will be able to view (Israeli-born) Simcha Jacobovici and (Canadian) Elliott Halpern’s film HOLLYWOODISM:  JEWS, MOVIES AND THE AMERICAN DREAM.  Based on the seminal book by Neal Gabler (AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN: HOW THE JEWS INVENTED HOLLYWOOD), this new feature-length documentary tells us nothing the Jewish community does not already know, but sure does it in the most entertaining and enjoyable way.  These immigrant Jews who were all born in eastern Europe developed the American movie studio system that more or less remains to this day.  Using archival material, home movies from the studio heads (often as not shot in 35 mm!), clips from classic films and interviews with descendants of the moguls, the film-makers weave a great story.  It is certainly one of the most interesting documentaries about American-Jewish history, which ironically was only able to find its major funding from Canadian and British sources.

Hungarian film-maker Peter Forgacs also uses home movies to make documentaries, but his approach is much more experimental.  The Festival features two of his:  THE MAELSTROM and FREE FALL.  THE MAELSTROM (subtitled “A Family Chronicle”) is based on a collection of home movies made by the Dutch-Jewish Peereboom family from the late 1930’s until 1942:  filming continued until the very last moment, the evening before the family was transported to a German labour camp (and only one member of the family survived). Forgacs’ style is understated, with spare music and few words – mostly newsreel voices (the films were of course silent), and very brief captions on screen identifying who is who.

FREE FALL uses the same technique, in this case private films shot by Hungarian Jewish cameraman Gyorgy Peto before and during World War Two.  It too is heartbreaking, as the documentary slowly but gradually reveals the stranglehold of anti-Jewish laws and actions.  The result is a stilling insight into the domestic lives of very ordinary people in the lead-up to a tragedy.  The survival of this film footage – and the director’s careful editing – adds a significant testament to Holocaust.

The fifth documentary will be one of three screened in the Festival’s special “Jazz Night” on Saturday June 13th:  WILD MAN BLUES, an account of a 1996 musical tour of Europe by Woody Allen, playing his clarinet in a professional Dixieland band.  Experienced American (Jewish) documentary-maker Barbara Kopple – best-known for her social/political studies of coal mine strikes (HARLAN COUNTY USA), anti-nuclear campaigning, women’s rights and Civil Rights stories, here goes biographical, and packs a real punch.  She was reportedly given total access to Woody Allen and companion Soon-Yi Previn, who is with him constantly in the film.  The result is the best opportunity to see the “real” Woody Allen, filmed by a discreet, anything-but-sensationalist quality film-maker.  Allen’s wit is here as expected, but more surprising are the real insights into the solitary, depressive side of his personality.

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