Sydney Film Festival 2009

This article on the  Sydney & Melbourne Film Festivals appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 29, 2009.  You can read the paper’s website version of the article by clicking here.

When June and July approach each year, film aficionados start to pack their carry bags with survival food in order to spend many hours in the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals.  This year, the Sydney Film Festival has been shortened, running from Wednesday 3rd through Sunday 14th June, while the Melbourne International Film Festival runs from July 24th to August 8th.

Certainly the Jewish highlight of this year’s Sydney Festival will be $9.99, an astonishing stop motion clay animation (“claymation”) which is the first official Australian-Israeli co-production (eligible for subsidies in both countries).  It is directed by American-based Israeli Tatia Rosenthal (in her first feature) and written by Rosenthal and noted Israeli writer Etgar Keret based on Keret’s short stories.  The production crew consists of a true mix of Israelis and Australians, with lead producers Emile Sherman from Australia and Amir Harel from Israel, and an all-star voice cast including Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, Barry Otto, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton and Claudia Karvan.  9.99 tackles nothing less than “the meaning of life” through the lives of a single dad and his sons.  Reviewers have been calling this film hypnotic, enchanting, charming, unpredictable and meaningful. The production design appears to be Tel Aviv “Bauhaus modern” meets Australian suburban, down to the council rubbish bins just like the ones in my driveway.  Few would have expected that Australia could develop such animation talent, but following on from the recent Mary and Max it appears that we have.  Like Mary and Max, this surreal film (as anyone who has read Keret’s stories will understand) is made for adults.  $9.99 screens on Thursday 11th June and Saturday 13th June.

From the time of Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn (who once said that “a wide screen just makes a bad film twice as bad”) in the early years of Hollywood, there have been legions of colourful Jewish media and entertainment personalities.  This year, the festival features major documentaries that detail two controversial Jewish personalities:  Phil Spector and Roman Polanski.  Spector is an American Jewish music producer and song writer who has worked with artists as wide-ranging as John Lennon, The Righteous Brothers, The Ramones and Tina Turner.  He was so legendary in the 1960s that Simon and Garfunkle sang about being “Phil Spectored”.  But his downfall has been profound:  in April of this year, he was convicted of murder in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson.  In the film The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector (which was completed prior to the conviction), he is interviewed at length about his strange life and career.  The result is captivating.

There is no doubt that Roman Polanski has lived enough tragedy for many lifetimes.  As a child survivor of the Holocaust, Roman Polanski escaped from the Krakow Ghetto and survived the war in Poland by living in a barn and on the streets.  In the 1960s he became a noted film director working in Poland and England.  In 1968 he met and married the actress Sharon Tate, moving with her to Los Angeles, where he directed Rosemary’s Baby.  In 1969, Tate – then eight months pregnant with their first child – and four others were murdered in their home by members of the Charles Manson “family” while Polanski was in England.  Despite this, Polanski continued to direct a number of notable films in the 1970s, including the classic Chinatown.  He has always had an affinity for “the dark side”, seen most recently in his Academy Award for best director of The Pianist.  The festival’s screening of the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired – the first I can recall about this tortured film-maker – particularly focuses on a now legendary 1977 statutory rape case, in which Polanski was convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen year old girl – in an incident that ironically took place at Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles home.  Fearful of a long prison sentence, Polanski fled the USA in February 1978 for France, where he has lived and worked since.

Undoubtedly Religulous will be one of the festival’s most entertaining films.  Directed by Jewish comedian Larry Charles (Borat), this “mockumentary” style film is unashamedly about the strangeness of religions, with Bill Maher interviewing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Scientologists about their faith.  While it opens in Australian cinemas later this year, this is the opportunity to see a preview screening.  Not for those who are easily offended.

By contrast, Disgrace, an adaptation of the strong and powerful J.M. Coetzee novel – directed by Steve Jacobs and co-produced by Emile Sherman (again, this appears to be his festival) – is not easy to watch.  Set in post-apartheid South Africa, John Malkovich gives a riveting performance as the academic David Lurie, a character who many reviewers and readers have interpreted as being Jewish.

Unmistaken Child (“Ha Gilgul”) is an accomplished Israeli documentary by Nati Baratz that proves yet again that Israel’s film industry has moved well beyond “bourekas” entertainment, north Tel Aviv dramas and stories of angst-filled soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to look at the wider world.  This feature-length film tells the story of a timid Tibetan Buddhist monk Tenzin Zopa, who is instructed by the Dalai Lama to go on a quest to find his late master’s reincarnation.

On the Road to Tel Aviv (“B’Derech Tel Aviv”) is a 15 minute short Israeli drama set on a bus against the background of suicide bombing.  When a young man spies a suspicious Arab woman and tries to exit with his fiancé, the scene is set for a parable about fear and distrust.  It screens following “Amreeka”, an American-Kuwaiti co-production about Palestinian Arabs travelling to America at the beginning of the most recent Iraq war.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, daughter of noted Jewish playwright Arthur Miller, and stars Robin Wright Penn as Pippa, a mother of two grown children who is married to Herb (Alan Arkin), a retired publisher thirty years her senior.  When the Lees move to a retirement village and Pippa meets her new neighbour Chris (Keanu Reeves), she starts to face the ramifications of her life’s choices.  Reportedly Arkin as the ageing Jewish publisher steals every scene he is in.

In 1974, Canadian Jewish director Ted Kotcheff directed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, starring a then-unknown Richard Dreyfuss in a tale about the Montreal Jewish community, a film which became Canada’s biggest box office hit in fifty years.  In 1971 he had come to Australia to direct Wake in Fright, the Australian classic based on Kenneth Cook’s novel and starring Chips Rafferty and Jack Thompson in his film debut.   Kotcheff returns to Australia as a festival guest for a question and answer session after a special screening of Wake in Fright on Saturday 13th June.

Other Jewish directors whose films appear in the Sydney Film Festival include Stephen Frears (Cheri), who did not find out that his mother was Jewish until he was in his late 20s; Joe Berlinger (Crude, a documentary about oil in Ecuador); and Chantal Akerman (a re-release of her influential 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles).

While it appears to have no Jewish themes, the new film Accidents Happen co-stars Geena Davis, and was all shot in Sydney’s upper north shore, primarily in St Ives and Pymble, two suburbs which turn out to be great “stand ins” for 1980s Connecticut, USA – where the film is set.  Many St Ives residents living near Lincoln Avenue watched the film being made with some pretty impressive cranes and rain-making equipment.  (This is not so unusual: Melbourne became the stand-in location for Boston for the Nicholas Cage supernatural thriller The Knowing, which screened in Australia earlier this year.)

The Melbourne festival does not announce its full program until July 7th, but this year it will feature the premiere screening of the new Australian teen horror film The Loved Ones, written and directed by Victorian Sean Byrne and produced by American-born Australian-Jewish producer Mark Lazarus (Australian Rules). This truly scary story of a year twelve student who is kidnapped by the “creepiest girl in school” and her father has the potential to become one of the greatest teen horror films since The Blair Witch Project.

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