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”)


Jewish themes in the Sydney Film Festival

June 2, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News – Sydney edition, on 2 June 2016.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Sydney Film Festival, the apparently random 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.  In short, the answer is that there are a lot of Jews both behind and in front of the camera, especially in the USA and Israel.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, possibly the most heart-breaking is “No Home Movie”, the last film by the late Belgian-Jewish film-maker Chantal Akerman.  As a dual portrait of both the film-maker and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor, this films poignantly captures Natalia’s final months – and tragically, Chantal’s as well.  The Festival also includes a screening of Akerman’s restored 1975 classic cult feminist film “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”.

This year two Israeli documentaries continue to showcase the dynamism and vitality of film-making from that country:  “Mr. Gaga”, directed by Tomer Heymann, and “Presenting Princess Shaw”, by Ido Haar.  Heymann – a Festival guest – spent eight years filming the subjects of “Mr. Gaga”, the internationally renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and his Batsheva Dance Company, which he has led since 1990, bringing it to international recognition.  This is edgy modern dance, brought to the screen with multicam footage, which “Variety” has called “the most exciting documentary … on modern dance since ‘Pina’”.  This film is a “must-see” for fans of modern dance or those interested in the cutting edge of the modern Israeli arts scene.

“Presenting Princess Shaw” reflects another kind of Israeli arts.  New Orleans aged care worker Samantha Montgomery writes and sings on the web as “Princess Shaw”.  Israeli composer, video artist and kibbutz resident Ophir Kutiel (known as “Kutiman”) creates YouTube video “mashups”.  This popular documentary charts how they have worked together.

“Weiner” is a different form of documentary, portraying the 2011 and 2013 meltdowns and sex scandals of former New York Jewish congressman and wanna-be mayor Anthony Weiner.  Made by two Jewish directors, Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner aide) and Elyse Steinberg, “Weiner” has been named by “Atlantic” magazine as “the best documentary about American politics in many years”.  Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is a long-time advisor to Hillary Clinton, and currently is the vice chair of Clinton’s Presidential campaign.  This proximity to real power – and the uncomfortable parallels between Weiner and Bill Clinton – gives this documentary a true current relevance.

The title of the Danish-German film “Land of Mine” (“Under Sandet”) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark.  Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans.  Although there are no Jewish characters or themes in “Land of Mine”, this powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

“Maggie’s Plan” is one of the festival’s most enjoyable films, a Woody Allen-ish dialogue and character-driven comedy of the sort we also now identify with Noah Baumbach.  Set in New York City and directed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Jewish playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, the film includes Baumbach favourite Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) as the befuddled Maggie, Maya Rudolph (daughter of Jewish composer Richard Rudolph) and everyone’s favourite Jewish character actor, Wallace Shawn.

The most interesting Jewish family to appear in this year’s Festival is that of the Suskinds in “Life: Animated”, a documentary about Owen Suskind (son of journalist Ron Suskind), a boy with autism who finds a way to communicate through Disney characters.

A large number films by Jewish directors are also represented in the Festival, including Steven Spielberg’s family blockbuster, “The BFG”; two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s documentaries “Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation” and “Miss Sharon Jones!”; octogenarian Frederick Wiseman’s documentary on the New York neighbourhood, “In Jackson Heights”; Amy J. Berg’s Janis Joplin biopic, “Janis: Little Girl Blue”; Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic, “I Saw the Light”.

The Festival also features a David Stratton-curated retrospective of Martin Scorsese films, which includes three fascinating Jewish characters: superfan Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) and TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in “The King of Comedy”, and mobster Sam “Ace” Rothstein (de Niro again) in “Casino”.

Other important Jewish personalities and actors appear: the late Jewish musician Lou Reed acts in “Heart of a Dog”, a creative documentary by his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson; Australian Jewish actor Tiriel Mora (“The Castle“) stars as Diego Rivera in Marion Pilowsky’s short “Frida and Diego – The Australian Years”; Daniel Radcliffe stars in Daniel Scheinert’s drama “Swiss Army Man”; and Ira Glass (presenter of “This American Life”) conducts interviews in the music/dance film “Contemporary Color”.

(Mr. Gaga poster below – original version in Hebrew)

Mr Gaga

(Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in “Weiner” documentary below)

Weiner film

(photo from “Land of Mine” below)


Footnote:  The Sydney Film Festival also includes a personal appearance by Mel Gibson, who appears in the American comic thriller, “Blood Father”.  Gibson’s Festival guest status follows his February Tropfest prize-giving appearance in Sydney.  Is this a conscious attempt to resurrect his profile and reputation here in Australia, following his disastrous antisemitic comments during the promotion of his film “The Passion of the Christ”?


Sydney Film Festival 2015

May 29, 2015

(This article on the Sydney Film Festival appeared in the Sydney edition of The Australian Jewish News on 28 May 2015.)

Because the Sydney Film Festival considers more than 3000 films for its program each year, and holds no quotas for any country, the selection of films with Jewish themes provides us with an insight into the modern Jewish experience: what issues are on the minds of us Jews – and others in the world? As the German-Jewish cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote in 1947, the themes that people choose for films are important windows into the subconscious mind of their present-day moment.

This year’s result is a mixed one, portraying a great range of Jewish personalities across time and space. There is one Holocaust drama, an experimental drama about Russian part-Jewish film director Sergei Eisenstein, and three documentaries about prominent Jews: a British pop singer (Amy Winehouse), an American fashion designer (Iris Apfel) and an American classical pianist (Seymour Bernstein).

Undoubtedly the Jewish highlight of this year’s festival is the German film “Phoenix”, directed by Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner Christian Petzold. Long-time Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Holocaust survivor whose face has been horribly disfigured. Set in immediate post-war Berlin, Nelly takes the opportunity to reconstruct a new face that allows her to pass un-noticed amongst those she once knew, including her husband, who may – or who may not – have turned her in to the Nazis. The result is a noir-ish mystery of personal identity, masquerade and strong drama.

The film “Amy” brings to screen the creative life and tragic death of British-Jewish pop singer Amy Winehouse. This stunning evocation of the troubled artist’s impact, relationships, music and legacy arrives in Sydney direct from Cannes, where it premiered two weeks ago, and prior to its international cinema release in early July.

The late Albert Maysles was truly one of the great Jewish documentarians, the co-director of classics like “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”. Although he passed away in March of this year at age 88, his final film is a biographical portrait of 93 year-old fashion designer Iris Apfel, a noted New York-born Jewish interior and fashion designer. Among other achievements, Apfel’s company, Old World Weavers, provided furnishings for every American president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. Maysles’ film, “Iris”, is her story, and a must-see for rag-traders.

Thinking man’s actor Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”) directs another Jewish biographical documentary, looking at the life of 87 year-old Seymour Bernstein in “Seymour: An Introduction”. Bernstein stopped his concert career abruptly at age 50 because of panic attacks, and this film touchingly charts his first performance in more than 35 years.

Fresh from this year’s Berlin Festival comes “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”, directed by Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) about time in Mexico spent by Sergei Eisenstein (“The Battleship Potemkin”) in 1930. This highly unconventional film features explicit gay sex, making it likely to be seen only at film festivals. The film industry weekly “Variety” calls “Last Tango in Paris” “tame” by comparison with Greenaway’s effort.

Two short films also contain Jewish themes: one from Israel (“Lama”, or “Why”) and a Palestinian-French co-production (“Ave Maria”) about an Israeli settler’s family whose car breaks down outside a West Bank convent.

Other films of interest include “God Told Me To”, a 1976 murder classic by Larry Cohen; “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, a tell-all documentary that the Church of Scientology has bitterly opposed; “Love and Mercy”, a bio-pic of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, co-written by Israeli Oren Moverman; and “Theeb”, a Jordanian co-production set in 1916 Arabian desert.

There is also a special “focus on South Africa”, with five films, including the classic 1973 “blaxploitation” film, “Joe Bullet”, made with an all-African cast and banned by the Apartheid government after just two public screenings.

(Image from the film “Phoenix”, starring Nina Hoss, appears below.)


Jewish themes in Sydney Film Festival June 2014

June 1, 2014

(This article about Jewish themes in the 2014 Sydney Film Festival appeared in different version in the Sydney edition of the “Australian Jewish News” on 29 May 2014, under the title “Documentaries with a Jewish focus”.)

There are few better opportunities to take a snapshot of independent international film-making than a large festival such as the Sydney Film Festival. The most likely Jewish audience pleaser this year will be “Wish I Was Here”, written and directed by as well as co-starring American-Jewish actor Zach Braff (“Scrubs”). This mellow and bittersweet comedy-drama has a similar tone to his first feature, the cult favourite “Garden State”, even including similar music. In “Wish I Was Here”, Braff plays a struggling Jewish actor, Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”) his on-screen father, and Kate Hudson his wife. The film has a notable funding history: Braff obtained more than 46,520 financial backers through the “Kickstarter” crowd-funding website.

As Israeli film and television goes from artistic strength to strength, feature films by Palestinians are slowly but surely making their international mark. Not surprisingly, the primary topic is battling Israel, frequently through acts of terrorism. This year the Festival features “Omar” (in Arabic and Hebrew) by Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”), and shot in Nablus and Nazareth. This hard-hitting (and for Jews, often hard to watch) thriller was nominated for an Academy Award last year, and tells the story of Palestinian baker Omar who keeps scaling the separation wall to see his girlfriend on the other side. When Omar is captured by Israeli soldiers, tensions are brought to a head. The film’s sympathies are obvious, but the dramatic strength of “Omar” and its all-too-human stories are hard to ignore.

“Omar” has a very tight script, excellent acting and direction:  there are some chase scenes through Arab towns that equal the sort of scenes we have seen in the “Bourne” films or Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise vehicles.  The strength of “Omar” is that it focuses on the claustrophobic lives of young Arabs caught on the Israeli-Palestine border.  Although the perspective is Palestinian, the film – mostly – avoids prominent anti-Israel stereotypes.  When three Israeli soldiers humiliate Omar when they stop him on the street (making him stand on a rock), we do not have a hard time imagining that this very event can and does take place.  Ultimately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides the background to a strong drama, but this is much less a political film that a study of character and of people caught in forces much larger than they can control.

Film festivals are the natural screening homes of long-form documentaries, and an analysis of the world’s great documentaries and documentary film-makers will surely show that Jews are over-represented in both. This year the Festival features three creative feature-length documentaries on three very different Jewish men: radical academic Noam Chomsky, the late European lawyer and advocate Raphael Lemkin and Hollywood “super-agent” Shep Gordon. Chomsky is well-known for his anti-Zionist views, and in “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”, Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) presents an original documentary interview with the linguist and commentator, primarily using coloured hand-drawn animation to illustrate the discussion.

In “Watchers of the Sky”, Jewish director Edet Belzberg examines the modern history of genocide. She frames her wide-ranging film through the life of Raphael Lemkin, who was born in 1900 in Belarus, and who invented the term “genocide” in 1944, which he defined as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” The film’s other hero (if you can call him that) is Benjamin Ferencz, the Hungarian-born Jewish lawyer who became a Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials; at age 94, Ferencz is still active in his global peace work. In covering so many different events (Armenian genocide, Rwanda, Darfur, Yugoslavia), Belzberg risks losing focus: the film reportedly took ten years to make and had a massive 800 hours of footage to edit. “Watchers of the Sky” is undeniably dense and not an easy viewing experience, but a powerful addition to the visual history of genocide and the place of the Holocaust.

By contrast, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon”, directed by actor Mike Myers (“Austin Powers”), is a more straightforward and totally upbeat documentary about Hollywood Jewish super-agent Shep Gordon (“The nicest person I’ve ever met”, says Myers). You may have never heard of Gordon, but heart-felt testimonials from Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Willie Nelson and others may convince you that not everyone in Hollywood is a shark. Celebrities galore and entertaining.

In addition to these films, four other Jewish documentary-makers have important films in the festival. Octogenarian Frederick Wiseman is best-known for his observational ability to capture the “essence” of American institutions such as hospitals, high schools, the army, state government, parks, prisons and department stores. This year, his two most recent films are being screened: “National Gallery” (three hours, fresh from the Cannes Film Festival) about the iconic London gallery, and “At Berkeley” (two parts, each two hours) about the University of California campus.

A more polemic film is “E-Team”, about human rights workers in Syria and Libya, by Oscar-winner Ross Kauffman (who is a Festival guest). Physicist-turned-film-maker Mark Levinson’s “Particle Fever” follows the scientists launching the Large Hadron Collider. And Australia’s own Rod Freedman (“Uncle Chatzkel”) returns with “Once My Mother”, Polish-Australian film-maker Sophia Turkiewicz’s examination of her fraught relationship with her mother, who is slipping into dementia.

To round out the importance of documentaries, the Festival is hosting a panel discussion entitled “Can Docos Change the World?” Speakers include Ross Kauffman and Professor Andrea Durbach, the South African-born Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW; the film “A Common Purpose” about Durbach’s work won the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival back in 2011, and she is a passionate speaker.

Other Festival films of Jewish note include a gay love story, a New York musical tale, an environmental thriller and a teacher rivalry.  In “Love is Strange”, gay Jewish film-maker Ira Sachs’ tells a touching story of two ageing men (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who are desperate to keep living together but torn apart when one of them loses his job teaching music in a Catholic high school.  “Love is Strange” is a small film, set mostly in crowded New York City flats, but it feels so emotionally true that the viewer never strays.  Unlike more films and television programs than I can count, this film shows what it is really like to live in New York City:  too many people for too little space.  The difficulty that the Lithgow and Molina characters have is in finding an affordable place to live together with no income, so each must “board” with friends or relatives, sharing a bedroom (with a nephew) or sleeping on a living room couch surrounded by party people.  This is the real New York, not the fake New York of people with large airy apartments all apparently paid for by part-time low-level jobs.  Genuinely touching and worth seeing.

In “Begin Again” – described as a “musical valentine to New York City” – Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Levine co-stars as a straying musician boyfriend of the ignored Keira Knightly (Adam, are you serious?). In “Night Moves”, Jesse Eisenberg turns his hand to the thriller genre, starring as an environmental terrorist. “Frank” is a bizarre story about musicians (one of whom always wears a giant fake head), directed by Irish-Jewish film-maker Lenny Abrahamson. In “Words and Pictures”, Clive Owen stars as Jack Marcus, a damaged but inspirational Jewish high school English teacher, whose rivalry with an art teacher (Juliette Binoche) runs a predictable but nevertheless enjoyable course. It’s directed by Australian icon Fred Schepsi, who is also a Festival guest and who will give the Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture.

Fun facts:
Frederick Wiseman’s production company is named “Zipporah Films”. In the Bible, Zipporah was the wife of Moses; it is also Wiseman’s wife’s first name.
Zach Braff’s mother converted to Judaism and Zach is a distant (ninth) cousin to American politician Mitt Romney through her.