This is the 10th national Festival of Jewish Cinema, an important event for both the
Jewish community and filmgoers generally. And what should you expect from a Jewish film
festival? Unlike most film festivals organised by a specific ethnic community (in
Melbourne alone there have been French, Greek, Turkish, Japanese, Hong Kong and Hispanic
events, among others) the choice here can’t be limited to films from a single region.
Neither does the festival simply showcase the work of Jewish filmmakers worldwide –
after all, many of Hollywood’s best-known directors, from Steven Spielberg to the
Coen brothers, would fit into this category.
"Jewish ethnicity, religion and culture are central
What the Festival of Jewish Cinema tends to do is concentrate on films where Jewish
ethnicity, religion and culture are central themes, explicitly discussed and even fought
over. In fact, nearly every film in the program this year seems to focus on a situation
where one culture and way of life is pitted against another. The opening night feature,
Paul Morrison’s Solomon and Gaenor, tells a Romeo-and-Juliet-like story set in early
20th century Wales, where a Welsh boy and a Jewish girl fall in love, to the dismay of
both their communities. Left Luggage, directed by Jeroen Krabbe, concerns a
‘completely secularised’ Dutch Jewish student who becomes the nanny for an
ultra-Orthodox family. Inside Out (the first South African film to screen at the festival,
and an especially intriguing-sounding inclusion) is about a Jewish actress who gets
stranded in a village outside Cape Town, where she’s persuaded to stage a nativity
Clearly such culture clashes can be played for laughs, or taken much more seriously. At
one extreme, of course, the collision can be lethal: though the 1999 festival has fewer
features about the Holocaust than in previous years, there are still a large number of
documentaries that in one way or another take the Nazi persecution of Jews as their
subject. (Not all are screening nationally.) But whether the result is all-out intolerance
or just mutual bemusement, this kind of subject-matter does help maintain community
identity. This is an important task for the festival – Hélène Lapiower’s A
Family Conversation, a documentary made up of interviews with the filmmaker’s own
family, is described as ‘a declaration of ethnic pride and Yiddishkeit in the face of
the assimilationist tendencies in late capitalist and multicultural societies!’
"The festival also has a lot to offer punters who
(like me) aren’t Jewish"
But the festival also has a lot to offer punters who (like me) aren’t Jewish or
especially concerned with Judaism as such. In 1998, it gave Australians their sole chance
to see one of the year’s great films, Alexei Guerman’s Khroustaliov, My Car!
This year, it’s hard to know what to recommend – I’ve only managed to
preview a couple of the features – but Kadosh (Sacred), by Israeli filmmaker Amos
Gitai, is certainly worth a look (it was screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival).
Set in present-day Jerusalem, it’s a fierce but carefully crafted polemic about
Orthodox Jewish attitudes to women. The separate plights of two sisters are shown in
counterpoint: while Malka (Meital Barda) is about to be trapped in an arranged marriage,
her elder sister Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) is facing divorce from her husband of ten years
because she’s failed to bear him a child. ‘A barren woman is no woman,’
says a rabbi. ‘A woman’s life is in those who make use of her...’ Gitai is
noted as an innovative documentarian as well as a maker of fiction features, and this
background can be detected in his use of long takes and direct sound, besides his overall
patient, contemplative approach.
Another item that sounds well worth checking out is this year’s revival of a Yiddish
classic: The Singing Blacksmith, a rarity from 1934, directed by German emigré director
Edgar G. Ulmer. A cosmopolitan by necessity, Ulmer had a fascinating career that film
scholars are still discovering – from working as an assistant to the legendary silent
director F.W. Murnau, to making a series of US Yiddish-language films in the ‘30s, to
grinding out ultra-cheap thrillers and sci-fi films with titles like Beyond The Time
Barrier. A romantic drama about a drunken layabout who is transformed by the love of a
good woman, The Singing Blacksmith is described as resembling the work of Ulmer’s
later film noir period, while remaining ‘folkloric, montage-filled, and thoroughly
class conscious.’ Sounds too good to miss.