Sydney Film Festival 2017 preview

June 4, 2017

(This article about the Sydney Film Festival appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 1 June 2017.)

With no “Jewish theme” requirement at the Sydney Film Festival, program selectors use artistic license to choose films that appeal. Yet each year, the selection of Jewish themes and personalities is eclectic, diverse and fascinating. The year 2017 is no exception, most notably with Jewish documentaries set in Australia, Germany, the USA, the West Bank and – strangely – North Korea; as well as a delightful Palestinian-Israeli comedy and biographical sketch of Karl Marx, one of the most famous Jews of the modern era.

The Australian-Jewish highlight this year is Sydney-based Su Goldfish’s feature-length documentary, entitled “The Last Goldfish”. Born to German-Jewish refugees in Trinidad after World War II, young Su moves to Australia. Only at age 14 does she begin to understand that her family is Jewish: like many survivors, her father doesn’t want to talk about it, telling her she is “the last Goldfish”. Surely there must be other relatives, Su thought. This is the story of her 40-year search for family, ranging back over more than a century of family memories and photos. The film-maker makes sense of her family history, sorting out what happened when and why.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, brings a totally different documentary sensibility to the screen. Belin-based Loznitsa has become one of the most accomplished Russian-speaking documentarians, frequently engaging Jewish topics. Consciously named the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz” explores similar themes of memory and history by using “observational cinema” technique perfected by Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Loznitsa watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The camera captures – in black and white – how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists behave in these places. A cultural commentary for our times.

By contrast, “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” is a straight documentary in the best of the American tradition about New York urban planning activist Jane Jacobs. Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” became a passionate appeal for neighbourhood scale in American city building. “Citizen Jane” tells the story of her battles with New York City master builder Robert Moses, the most powerful planning “power broker” of his time. True to New York style, both the late Jacobs and late Moses were Jewish, as well as many interviewees, including architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

Numerous critics describe the German-French co-production drama “The Young Karl Marx” as a film “full of talk” that should be dull. Yet it’s any but. Credit goes to Haitian director Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”), who brings the main characters to life – founder of Communism Karl Marx, his wife Jenny and co-founder Frederick Engels – in engaging, even gripping ways. Stay for the dynamic closing credits. In French, German and English.

One of the Festival’s best comedies, “Holy Air”, comes from Israel. Writer/director Shady Srour stars as Adam, an Israeli Christian Arab living in Nazareth who is struggling. His beautiful liberated wife is pregnant, his father is in poor health, and he needs to find a new way to make a living, battling local hoodlums. The idea of selling “holy air” to tourists is born. Sly, seductive, satiric and a delightful snapshot of life in Nazareth today. The opening and closing traffic jam scenes are gems. In Arabic, Hebrew, English and French.

Iconic French-Jewish film-maker Claude Lanzmann (“Shoah“) – now aged over 90 – returns to the screen with “Napalm”, a personal documentary about an incident that happened to him in North Korea in the late 1950s. As part of a delegation of leftist intellectuals, he has an intimate encounter with a North Korean nurse, a story he has told many times. In “Napalm”, Lanzmann returns to North Korea to re-examine his youthful self in the context of modern Pyongyang. Highly self-indulgent but always fascinating, in “Napalm” Lanzmann asks many questions about his own past and the truly odd North Korean state.

A different type of documentary, “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.

Closer to home, Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”. A previous Erdstein-Foulcher comic collaboration, the short film “Picking Up at Auschwitz”, equally offended and impressed audiences.

Also worth catching: “Porto”, with one the final  performances by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); “Insyriated”, a drama set in civil war-torn Syria starring Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Lemon Tree”); and “Manifesto” is a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, and loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.

(image below: Jane Jacobs in “Citizen Jane”)


Books that made an impact

September 13, 2014

Not long ago, I was “challenged” on Facebook (simultaneously from Israel and Washington, D.C.) to list ten books that have impacted me in some way, with the following rules: only take a few minutes to pick the books, they don’t need to be great works of literature, but books that have stayed with you. So here’s my book list. It’s not chronological, just the order that they came to me.

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway: I adored Hemingway when I was in high school. Spare, muscular prose, very “male”. But yet “A Farewell to Arms” is terribly romantic. I remember this as his best.

“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand is, admittedly, one of the darling authors of the far libertarian right. This 1943 best-seller is about an architect, Howard Roark, and his striving to express his individualism. Dynamite stuff when you are 17.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Probably the best American college “campus” novel I have read. Neatly captures life at a school (Bennington in Vermont, where I visited once, so I could picture the setting), but adds an intellectual mystery thriller. Great prose, highly engaging, strong characters. I envy people who have not read it already: an experience awaits.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs: I am one of many for whom Jane Jacobs is an icon. This 1961 polemic attacks the excesses of urban renewal, and voices the joys of mixed neighbourhoods such as New York City’s Greenwich Village. I read it in my first year of graduate urban planning study at UC Berkeley and will never forget it. Do you think Jane Jacobs is outdated? No way, There’s a fascinating current literature analysing her still.

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard is also a UC Berkeley revelation, assigned in a design social factors course by my then teacher and mentor Clare Cooper-Marcus, a landscape architecture professor of uncommon ability, insight and depth. I still have my original copy; it sits about two meters from where I write. What is this book? An poetic essay on nature or a spiritual autobiography? Both and more. The subtitle is “a mystical excursion into the natural world.” It is.

“Flicker” by Theodore Roszak is, genuinely, one of the creepiest books I have read. Roszak is a historian, sociologist and a philosopher who taught at Cal State Hayward. He is best-known for his “The Making of a Counterculture”, but he clearly loved film – thus this book. This mystery – loosely based on the life of film critic Pauline Kael – is, thrillingly, back in print. Unbeatable.

“Stop-Time” by Pat Conroy is one of those novels you read at age 19 and never forget. I did and I have not. It’s sitting on my bedside table for a re-read right now.

“Goodbye Columbus” by Philip Roth has influenced me in more ways than I can count. I am happy to say that I was an early predictor of Roth’s later success, based on this book. I adored “Goodbye Columbus”, and I equally adored the 1969 movie version starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin. Who else has captured suburban American Jewish life better than Roth? Like Woody Allen in film, Roth has covered so much territory that almost every American-Jewish author since gets compared to him. This is his first book, and although possibly not his best, it is one of his most autobiographical.  Here’s more of what I have to say about Roth’s books and influence.

“An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler: Some books set you on a twenty year quest. This one did for me. This is, in essence, a “group biography” of early Hollywood Jewish moguls who started film studios. I used Gabler’s thesis for years in my lectures on American Jewish film history, and it has underpinned my film reviewing for the “Australian Jewish News” for more than 25 years.

“The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell. The world falls into two categories of people: those who love Malcolm Gladwell, and those who are not yet aware of his work. The second category is getting smaller every day. I am part of the first. My copy of “The Tipping Point” is still heavily annotated. I used it for my PhD thesis; I have referred to it in almost every job I have done since it was first published in 2000. I even have a “Gladwell” category on this blog. Need I say more?

Four women and six men: not a bad gender breakdown. Five novels – although all of them published before 1993; one autobiography (Conroy), one impassioned essay on urbanism (Jacobs), one historical group biography (Gabler), one poetic meditation (Dillard) and one marketing/social psychology/”new age” business book (Gladwell).