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JAKE WILSON sticks his nose into this year's program of the Festival of Jewish Cinema and sniffs out some enticing films, ranging from a Romeo and Juliet like love drama to a romantic drama from 1934 about a drunken layabout.

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 themes"

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 play!

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.

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