Jewish themes and directors abound at Melbourne International Film Festival

July 30, 2017

(This article appeared in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 27 July 2017.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF, 3-20 August), the selection of films reflecting Jewish subjects and characters provides an unusual insight into how the “current moment” of Jewish life is reflected in contemporary film.  This year there are lots of Jewish stories, with Jews both behind and in front of the camera in the USA, Russia, Poland, Israel – and Australia.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, the “must see” is the opening night world premiere of “Jungle”, a fictional re-telling by Greg McLean (Australian director of “Wolf Creek”) of the real-life story of adventurer and entrepreneur Yossi Ghinsberg, played by Jewish actor Daniel Radcliffe. The 22-year-old Ghinsberg travelled with two friends into the uncharted Amazon, but the dream trip turned into a nightmare from which not all returned. The film has been described as a “stunningly shot, edge-of-your seat story of survival and self-discovery …. entertaining, terrifying and deeply moving.” The Festival also features an “In Conversation” session with the real Yossi Ghinsberg and director Greg McLean, moderated by journalist Sandy George.

A different Israeli story features in the documentary “Death in the Terminal” by co-directors Asaf Sudry and Tali Shemesh, providing a tense, minute-by-minute account of mistaken identity and mob justice by recreating the events of a 2015 terrorist attack in Beersheva. Using CCTV footage, mobile phone videos and witness testimonies, real events unfold from multiple angles. (Caution: contains archival footage of real killings.)

Three fascinating films come from Russia – a contemporary thriller, a meditative documentary on the Holocaust and an early classic sci fi. “Closeness”, the feature debut from Kantemir Balagov, based on a true story is set in a Jewish enclave within a mostly-Muslim region of the Caucasus. The story follows Ilana (Jewish actress Darya Zhovner), whose family is rocked when her younger brother David and his fiancée are abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a large ransom. The program cautions that the film “contains archival footage of real killings”.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, draws on the “observational cinema” technique of Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Berlin-based Loznitsa frequently engages in Jewish topics and consciously named his film after the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz”, as it explores similar themes of memory and history. The film watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The black and white camera captures how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists act in these places. A true cultural commentary for our times. Loznitsa’s film “A Gentle Creature” – about the decay of modern Russia – also screens.

Many of the photographers and cinematographers in the Soviet Union until 1932 were Jews, including Jakov (Yakov) Protazanov, director of the ground-breaking 1924 silent “Aelita, Queen of Mars”. It was the first Soviet science fiction film ever made.

The rarely seen “The Man Who Cried” (2000) constitutes part of MIFF’s Sally Potter retrospective. Growing up in England, Russian Jewish refugee Suzie (Christina Ricci) befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett), gypsy horse-handler Cesar (Johnny Depp) and opera star Dante (John Turturro). The emotionally rich film follows Suzie through the Second World War to finding her father in America.

Two documentaries examine the experiences of Arab life on the West Bank. “Waiting for Giraffes”, looks at the only operating zoo on the West Bank. It’s a quixotic quest by zoo vet Dr Sami to build up the zoo and bring in new giraffes. In reaching out to his Israeli colleagues, the film posits hope for future friendly coexistence. Georgian-born Israeli film-maker Helen Yanovsky directs “The Boy from H2”, a 21 minute short about a 12-year-old Arab boy who lives in Hebron’s Area H2, a section of the city controlled by Israeli military; co-produced by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.

Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa” and “Angry Harvest”), born in Warsaw in 1948 as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who received a Yad Vashem Righteous Persons medal, won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear with the feminist ecological thriller “Spoor”. Also from Poland comes “Afterimage”, the final film from the late master Andrzej Wajda (“Katyń”, “Land of Promise”), which dramatises the final years of Polish avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński, who observed the Holocaust unfolding first-hand living in Łódź in war-time Poland. Strzemiński’s 1947 piece, a 10 collage work entitled “To My Friends the Jews”, combined drawings and photographs from both the ghetto and death camps, to become one of the most significant “pro” Jewish works at a time of great antisemitism in that country.

Other Jewish directors abound. British-born Jewish comedian Ben Elton premieres his first Australian film, “Three Summers”, set in a fictional West Australian rural folk festival. New York Jewish indie directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (the “new Coen brothers”) return with “Good Time”, nominated for the Palme d’Or at the latest Cannes Film Festival. Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” stars Debra Winger and Tracey Letts; “The Lost City of Z” from James Gray’s (“The Immigrant”) tells an Amazon story not unlike Yossi Ghinsberg’s; and Marc Meyers’ “My Friend Dahmer” stars Ross Lynch as the notorious American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

American Jewish documentarians represented in the Festival include John Scheinfeld “Chasing Trane”, about musician John Coltrane; Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral: The VR Experience”; Matthew Heineman “City of Ghosts”, about journalists and ISIS in Iraq; and Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip” about The Grateful Dead. Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz’s (“Legally Blonde”) “Step” charts stories of African-American dancers, and New York-based Israeli-born Shaul Schwarz’s “Trophy” explores the world of big-game hunters and animal rights activists.

Closer to home, MIFF includes a preview of ABC TV season 2 of “Glitch”, directed by Australian Jewish director Tony Krawitz. And Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”.

Also worth catching: a reprise of the 1956 classic American frightener “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel; Chilean-Jewish director Alicia Scherson’s “Family Life”, a  “delightfully strange, heartfelt look at mid-30s ennui”; “Porto”, with the final performance by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); and “Manifesto” a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.

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