Sydney Film Festival 2008

(originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 30, 2008)

Not too many years ago, most Jewish-themed film playing in the Sydney Film Festival were American-made documentaries.  But the Jewish world is changing, and we can see the reflection of this transition in the world cinema here in Sydney this June.  Four Israeli films premiere at the festival, most notably “The Band’s Visit” (“Bikur Ha-Tizmoret”), one of the most successful – and accessible – Israeli movies ever.  With eight Israeli Oscars and major awards from Cannes (where it received a standing ovation) as well as ten other international festivals, the film’s theatrical release in Australia in late June will make it only the third Israeli feature film to be screened (following “Beyond the Walls” and “Walking on Water”).

First-time writer/director Eran Kolirin fondly remembers watching Egyptian films on Israeli TV back in the early 1980s.   He includes this image in his film, a bitter-sweet comedy charting the mostly (mis)adventures of an Egyptian band – the eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who have come to Israel to perform at an Arab cultural festival.  Wearing their baby blue band suits, in the absence of a welcoming party at the airport, they try to make their own way and get well and truly lost at a small community in the desert.  When they naively ask where the “Arab cultural centre” is, the reply is that there is no Arab – or Jewish or any – culture of any sort there.

With his deeply expressive face, accomplished Israeli Jewish actor Sasson Gabai stars as the band’s leader Tewfiq, and classic Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz plays Dina, the restaurant owner who offers him shelter.  Also notable is Palestinian Arab actor Saleh Bakri; the mixture of Arabs and Jews in the cast is, in and of itself, a marker to a possible peaceful co-existence.  “The Band’s Visit” is a comedy, but as in the best of comedies, it builds on the deep longing and pain of its main characters.  In Hebrew, English and Arabic.

The Canadian-Greek co-production “Fugitive Pieces” started life as an acclaimed poetic novel by Anne Michaels.  It has been adapted for the screen and directed by Canadian-Jewish Jeremy director Podeswa, best-known for his TV work in “Dexter” and “Six Feet Under”.   The story follows the difficult tale of Jakob Beer, whose family is taken away by the Nazis in front of his eyes as he hides behind a curtain.  Fleeing his Polish village, he accidently is picked up by Athos (a wonderfully deep performance by Rade Serbedzija), a kindly Greek archaeologist who smuggles him back to Greece.  At the end of the war, they migrate to Canada and Jakob (played as an adult by British actor Stephen Dillane) is haunted by the loss of his family and the uncertainty of whether or not his sister survived the war.

This deep melancholy and his constant need to review his life causes his first marriage to the blond and very non-Jewish Alex (Rosamund Pike) to break up, but – in a distinct departure from the book – he is ultimately saved by the love of Michaela (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer).  The film frequently shifts in time and place from Poland to Greece to Canada – and in language from Yiddish to Greek to English, and is enormously moving in its ability to capture the essence of how Jakob needs to process his losses for many decades.  “To live with ghosts requires solitude,” he observes at one point.  In a case of life imitating art, director Podeswa’s father lost most of his family in the Holocaust in Poland when not much older than Jakob, making this a highly personal film.

“Lou Reed’s Berlin” is a music film with a difference.  Singer-songwriter-guitarist Lou Reed (Velvet Underground) was born into a Jewish family in New York (his father changed the family name from Rabinowitz), and has become one of the great names of rock.  After his highly successful album “Transformer”, he released “Berlin”, a very dark album about two drug addicts living in that eponymous city.  The album flopped in the USA, but this film – directed by American-Jewish artist Julian Schnabel (who most recently filmed “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) resurrects the album through filming a series of concerts.  The opening frames include an on-screen introduction by Schnabel exclaiming (of Reed) “What a Yiddishe Cop!”

Although the characters are not Jewish, the festival’s opening night film ”Happy-Go-Lucky” by British-Jewish director Mike Leigh (who is also a festival guest) is probably the sweetest Leigh film you will ever see.  While the story takes a while to coalesce, following the irrepressibly happy thirty-ish Poppy (Sally Hawkins, in an extraordinary performance) as she negotiates life’s challenges, this may be one of the best adult “feel good” films of the year.  From her flamenco dance classes to her deep friendship with her flatmate to dealing with her raging driving instructor and finally finding a boyfriend, this film is the remedy for all of the nihilistic and apocalyptic films you have seen.

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