(originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 30, 2003)
As one of Australia’s greatest – and longest running – film institutions, the Sydney Film Festival has attained a reputation for introducing some of the best of world cinema to Sydney audiences. This year the Festival includes two Australian-Jewish documentaries and two important feature films from Israel.
Undoubtedly the Jewish highlight of the Festival is the Sydney premiere of the documentary “Welcome to the Waks Family”, directed by Barbara Chobocky and co-produced by Rod Freedman (“Uncle Chatzkel”). This is the most exuberant and enjoyable Australian-Jewish film in many years, and profiles the Waks family – one of the largest in Australia, with 17 children from the same two parents. Zephaniah Waks (born Stephen, brother of the musician Nathan), grew up in a secular Jewish household on Sydney’s north shore. He spiritual search brought him to Chabad, and its New York headquarters, where he met and then married Haya – born in Israel of Yemenite and strict religious background.
“Welcome to the Waks Family” is no superficial current affairs snapshot – the film follows the Melbourne-based family over five years. Chobocky – who is not Jewish – had been good friends with Stephen/Zephaniah in their youth, and was fascinated by Stephen’s life changes. Through devotion to this most unusual Australian-Jewish story, she kept the film project alive shooting when she could in between other projects, until Film Australia and Rod Freedman came on board.
The family’s irrepressible spirit, humour and energy imbues this film. It is an inside but open and accessible portrait of a Chassidic family in a way I can’t remember having been done before in any country. Along with detailing the ultra-Orthodox observance, we have a fascinating insight into what it takes to run a family of 19 people – where Haya does the catering herself for each Bar Mitzvah and wedding, and the sheer logistics of having four kitchens and even sorting the laundry. “Welcome to the Waks Family” also illustrates (although not intentionally) the geographic diversity of modern Jewish life – an Australian/Israeli family where the family members are frequently travelling to the USA for yeshiva study, and even Israel for army service by the son who has decided not to follow his family’s religious practices. This astonishing film will also be broadcast by SBS later this year, and will be warmly received.
“Welcome to the Waks Family” is competing in the Dendy Awards (State Theatre, Friday June 6th), along with an unusual story of an Australian Holocaust survivor – “Mascot” (directed by Lisa Caneva). In 1941, five year-old Alex Kurzem escaped the Nazi attack on his village which killed everyone except him, and was found by Nazi soldiers. In an extraordinary circumstance, one soldier saved his life and Alex was adopted as the soldiers’ mascot. Instructed never to reveal his Jewish identity, he kept his secret in Australia for 60 years.
Two Israeli feature films also screen in the Festival: “Broken Wings” and “Yossi and Jagger”. Taken as a pair, these films show the maturity and sophistication of the Israeli film industry – and how Israeli films have now firmly moved on from macro-political issues to those of individuals seeking to find their own identity. “Yossi and Jagger” is one of those films set in the Israeli army which the founders of the State of Israel simply could not have imagined, because it tells the (reportedly true) story of a gay romance between two male soldiers. Yossi is the “macho” leader, and Jagger is the music-loving one. Avoiding politics, this is the story of their relationship.
“Broken Wings” (K’Nafayim Shvurot”) is director Nir Bergman’s feature debut, and swept the Israeli “Academy Awards” last year, winning best picture, director and script. It tells the story of the Ulman family, living in Haifa after the death of the father in an accident. Mother Dafna (Orli Zilberschatz-Banai) is a nurse no longer coping with the financial and emotional pressures of raising her four children: at age 17, oldest child Maya must act as a surrogate mother; 16 year-old Yair has dropped out of school; 11 year-old Ido is already exhibiting seriously self-destructive behaviour; and 6 year-old Bahr is fearfully starting school. This is a heart-breaking and poignant film about guilt, sadness and ultimately overcoming adversity, which helps to establish Israeli film as a truly mature national cinema.