No-one could ever accuse the Jewish International Film Festival of taking soft options. Most festivals choose to screen something suitably light-hearted on opening night but the 2021 JIFF was launched with Yaron Silberman’s Incitement, a film about the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
Incitement was crammed with political dialogue and small, significant incidents that add up to a painstaking portrait of the murderer, Yigal Amir. It was also singularly lacking in drama as we knew from the start exactly where this story was heading. What we got instead was a mapping of Amir’s radicalisation as he convinced himself that killing Rabin was a righteous act.
It may not have been a joyous start to a festival but there was an unmistakable sense of relevance. It was sobering to watch footage of Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a huge, angry crowd, stirring up hatred against opponents who had won a crucial vote. Does this ring any bells?
This staunch, political emphasis is one of the keynotes of the festival selection. Not much would pass as Jewish comedy, even though Artistic Director, Eddie Tamir, often sounds as if he’s practicing a stand-up routine. There are a few films of a comic complexion, notably Jorge Weller’s Love in Suspenders, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby and Talya Lavie’s Honeymood, but don’t expect too many laugh-out-loud moments.
Among the most prominent Israeli dramas, Asia and Esau both feature Shira Haas, who starred in the 2020 TV series, Unorthodox, and is now one of the faces of Israeli cinema. Three promising international features are Adventures of a Mathematician, which tells the story of Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish Jew who became a father of the H-bomb; The Last Vermeer, in which Guy Pearce plays Han van Meegeren, the notorious Dutch forger whose work fooled the Nazis; and the Italian film, Thou Shalt not Hate, about a Jewish doctor whose antipathy for Neo-Nazis clashes with his ethical code.
There’s also an entire 12-part TV series, called Unchained, which is screening in four installments. I can’t speak with any authority because I haven’t had the opportunity to delve into most of these films.
In striving to see as much as possible from a program of more than 50 items, I settled on the documentaries, which are extremely well represented. As is often the case the one I wasn’t able to see is arguably the most significant. The Human Factor looks at the peace negotiations of 1995 that form the backdrop for Incitement. In particular it looks at the complex relationships that existed between Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, at a time when the Oslo Accords brought the Israelis and Palestinians within sight of a peace agreement.
It’s now history that those Accords, bitterly opposed on both sides, were destined to fail, but this was as close as the we’ve come to seeing a solution to the intractable problems of co-existence. Israel today seems just as hopelessly divided as ever between hard-liners and liberals, with Netanyahu clinging to power under threat of imminent prosecution.
This precarious position forms the backdrop to two important documentaries that examine Israel’s ties to the United States. Kings of Capitol Hill looks at the power of the lobby group, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), but also the tensions and misgivings that have arisen over the policies pursued by Netanyahu and Trump.
While the first film offers a unique insight into the way Israeli interests make themselves known in Washington D.C., Maya Zinshtein’s ‘Til Kingdom Come, examines a bizarre connection between a Jewish charity and American Evangelicals – who are now one the largest donors to Israel, with a massive annual contribution repeated year after year.
We follow Yael Eckstein, newly annointed Director of the foundation started by her father, as she travels to impoverished Kentucky to accept contributions from church leaders, the Binghams, who regale their flock by singing Israel’s praises and even display a massive Star of David on the wall. This may sound weird enough but weirder still is the reasoning behind this Christian enthusiasm for all things Jewish. It’s simply that the Church Prophecies say the Jews must be established in Israel, then fight an apocalyptic war. Two thirds will die with the other third converting to Christianity and joining Jesus’s chosen people in rising up to Heaven in the Rapture.
In brief, the Evangelicals are supporting the Jews in anticipation of that glorious Armageddon when they are all killed or converted. It could happen today or next week, so there’s every incentive to help foment a war between Israel and its Arab neighbours. As the end result justifies any and all alliances it’s not unusual to find anti-Semites eagerly raising money for Israel. It’s enough to make one believe in conspiracy theories.
The money-raising feels like a massive confidence trick, but who is running the con? The Israeli charity or the all-powerful Pastors of the Church? The latter come across as a sinister group of power mongers who treat their followers as if they were all of one mind, like the denizens of a bee hive or an ant’s nest. These are the people who make up as much as 25 percent of the American electorate. They are the poor mugs who consistently vote against their own interests because the preacher tells them that Donald Trump, or some other slimeball, is their saviour on earth.
The truly scary thing is the certainty the Evangelicals feel in all their beliefs. At one point, the younger Bingham blandly tells us: “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian.” When reality comes into conflict with the Rapture it’s a no-contest.
Leaving politics aside, grit your teeth for They Call Me Dr. Miami, a portrait of celebrity plastic surgeon, Michael Salzhauer: an orthodox Jew and would-be hero of popular culture who packs his surgery with rap stars and live-streams his operations on social media. To say the self-stylised Dr. Miami is a conflicted personality is a laughable understatement. His need for attention has turned a medical practice into a branch of show biz that promises quick fixes to pathological narcissists. In this vaguely sympathetic documentary he gets off too lightly.
Finally, two excellent films about filmmakers: Churchill and the Movie Mogul looks at the friendship (and business relationship) that existed between Winston Churchill and Alexander Korda which led to a series of stylish propaganda movies in aid of the British war effort, notably, That Hamilton Woman (1941). The Korda-Churchill connection has been dignified by history but it would have provided a bonanza for a Parliamentary ethics committee.
I’ll end with a big recommendation for Alan Pakula: Going for Truth, which looks at the life and career of one of the great, underrated directors of the late 20th century. Pakula, who gave us films such as Klute (1971), All the President’s Men(1976) and Sophie’s Choice (1982), was an intellectual in a profession that breeds showmen and snake-oil vendors. His deep preoccupation with politics leaves one wondering what he would have made of the Trump era.
Actors who worked with Pakula, from Jane Fonda to Meryl Streep to Harrison Ford, speak highly of the way he drew out their best performances. Beyond the personal reminiscences, in an era when Hollywood has sacrificed most of its artistic ambitions in the chase for blockbuster dollars, this film acts as a reminder of the importance of a great director. Given a choice I’d take Alan J. Pakula’s least successful movie over any box office smash by Zack Snyder.
Jewish International Film Festival 2021
Melbourne, until 16 March; Sydney until 24 March; Perth, until 3 March; Brisbane, until 28 Feb; Canberra, until 28 Feb.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 February, 2021