(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”)