Film Reviews

Jewish International Film Festival 2012

Published November 3, 2012

There may be a limit to the number of culturally specific films one should watch in quick succession. After spending most evenings last week previewing movies from the Jewish International Film Festival, when I answer the phone now I feel like saying “Shalom!”
For the 23rd year of the Jewish Film Festival in Australia, time, Festival Director, Eddie Tamir, decided the event needed a bit of sexing up. He has revamped the program, including 34 films from 14 countries, making sure the “international” bit is no idle boast. This was necessary because Australia also has an Israeli Film Festival, along with festivals from just about every other nation that ever picked up a camera, including Palestine.
The recent Cockatoo Island Film Festival was unique in being anchored to a location rather than a nationality, although for me it was a bridge – or at least a ferry ride – too far. It even offered the intense experience of camping on the island and watching movies day and night. Who’s got time to do this?
I’d sooner make my way to Bondi Junction to watch another Jewish film at a respectable hour. Even better, watch another opera broadcast from the Met in New York, as part of the Event Cinema’s Gold Class package. Last week the season kicked off with a magnificent production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, where the singing, the staging and the crystal clear sounds and images must have left viewers wondering when they last saw an opera on stage that made the same impression. A week of Jewish films will not convert me to Judaism, but one performance was enough to make me suspect that cinema may be the operatic medium par excellence.
Although the films in this year’s JIFF hail from all over the world, the majority are from Israel. As such, there are unavoidable themes that must be canvassed: the Holocaust, religious extremism and nationalism, the Holocaust, relations with the Arabs, the Holocaust, and so on. In one documentary a Rabbi assures us that the Jews are a happy people, but there are precious few Israeli movies to support that claim.
Even Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, wrote about “the misery of being Jewish”. That misery permeates so many films one wonders if such a deep vein of melancholy will ever be dispelled. Admittedly, it has probably been an intrinsic part of the Jewish character for the past two thousand years.
God’s Neighbours is a case in point. It is a familiar genre tale of a young roughneck who falls in love and begins to reconsider his violent ways. The twist is that he and his friends are religious fanatics who defend God’s laws by beating secular types with baseball bats, harrassing women who wear revealing clothes, and vandalising shops that don’t respect the Sabbath. The simple point is that God would prefer us to be tolerant rather than militant.
Yossi is probably the best film about a gay, depressed, overweight Israeli doctor you will see this year. Sharqiye tells the depressing story of a Bedouin watchman who takes extreme measures to prevent his tin shack from being demolished. Dorfman is an amusing, lightweight rom com from the United States.
The festival also provides an early opportunity to see new Australian films such as Dead Europe and The First Fagin. The latter is the more agreeable of the two, telling the story of transported criminal, ‘Ikey’ Solomon, in a blend of drama and documentary. Tony Krawitz’s Dead Europe is a strange, unpleasant movie that is most unflattering for Jews, Greeks, Palestinians, Hungarians, Gays and Aussie backpackers. The dialogue is leaden, and the action often feels like a pastiche in which Don’t Look Now meets Death in Venice.
On the whole the documentaries were livelier than the features, although the topics were not pretty. The Law in These Parts, for instance, is a forensic examination of the laws put in place in the occupied territories, featuring interviews with those who have framed and enforced the rules. It’s a film that may appeal mostly to lawyers.
Of the documentaries I sampled, the two stand-outs were It’s No Dream, a biographical portrait of Theodor Herzl, which drew its force from the fascinating life and character of the man; and Hava Nagila, which was genuinely vibrant, funny and engaging.
Although many people believe Hava Nagila is some kind of ancient folk song, it was written during the early days of the state of Israel, adapted from a Hasidic tune of Ukrainian origins. It has gone on to enjoy a dazzling international career, becoming an anthem for suburban Jewish happiness.
Its major interpreters such as Harry Belafonte and Connie Francis are not even Jewish. Glen Campbell has sung it, so have Chubby Checker and Elvis Presley. There is a version in Cuban rhythms, on Irving Field’s album, Bagels & Bongos.
Bob Dylan “butchered” Hava Nagila on stage in a performance that one commentator describes as an archetypal Jewish gesture of simultaneously embracing and refusing the song. It’s a good match for  Dylan/Zimmerman’s born-again refusal of the faith of his fathers. Perhaps he just disliked the idea of people dancing around in a circle having a good time when they could have been thoroughly miserable.


Jewish International Film Festival, Sydney 1-18 November, 2012
Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 3, 2012