Voyages (Emmanuel Finkiel, 1999)

The annual Festival of Jewish Cinema has now been going for 10 years. Initially under the patronage of the Australian Film Institute (AFI), it soon became an independent entity, run by a non-profit incorporated association, the Jewish Film Foundation of Australia. But it remains under the directorship of its original Director, Les Rabinowicz, who has built the Festival into a popular community event.

Every November, in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Canberra, the Festival premieres a selection of imported new fiction films and documentaries with Jewish themes, culled mainly from overseas Festivals. The programme in Sydney and Melbourne is more extensive than that in Canberra and Perth; in addition to the selection of fiction films screened nationally, the larger communities get to see many documentaries as well as one or two Yiddish film classics.

This year, for the first time, the Festival procured advance screenings of two films due for commercial release. Generally its programming has been restricted to films that are overlooked and underrated by commercial distributors and exhibitors. (Some of the selected films – mainly documentaries – have been bought by public television subsequent to Festival screenings.) Yet, without the attraction of a Spielberg, Woody Allen or Benigni drawcard, it has managed to attract large audiences. One may well ask why. I think there is more than one answer.

Firstly, it has established itself as a popular annual event in the social calendar of the Jewish communities of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. They rush to make advance bookings by phone as soon as they receive the programme and line up in long queues on the day that ticket sales open. Some sessions are booked out even before the Festival opens. Friends and families confer about their selection of films, book together and arrange to meet for coffee or dinner after screenings. Inside the crowded theatre, patrons greet familiar faces; in the congested foyer, there is a buzz of excitement, as eager patrons jostle their way in and join in animated exchanges on their way out. It is a real community Festival.

The timing is one factor contributing to the Festival’s success. In November, the academic year is over; there are no competing cultural festivals or sports draws (AFL finals, Tennis Opens, World Cup or test cricket matches); it is also the ‘silly season’ in the commercial cinema, with little to offer the discerning viewer. Another factor is the audience’s hunger for European art cinema, which is shamefully neglected by local exhibitors. But, most importantly, the Festival offers its audience the pleasure of recognition, the opportunity of seeing people like themselves up on screen, validation of their own ethnic identity.

The community is of various national origins, and even more various linguistic competences. The films are sub-titled but there is a special pleasure in attending films with dialogue in one’s native or parental language. (In the case of the Jewish community, that might be Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, German, French, Spanish or Czech – or some combination of these.) In the current commercial climate, we get little opportunity to see foreign language cinema, and even SBS has now postponed the screening of foreign movies til after 10 pm – too late for most people.

This year Melbourne and Sydney patrons could see thirteen documentaries, two pre-WW2 Yiddish classics, twelve feature-length fiction movies and one animated feature. Single tickets were more expensive than normal commercial prices, but reductions were offered for those booking a package of seven films. The program offered a mixture of heavy and lightweight fare, although the shadows cast by Nazism (and Stalinism, in the case of Eastern European movies) remained a dark undercurrent, if not dominant concern.

The opening night movie was Waiting for the Messiah, a first feature by Daniel Burman, a young Argentine director. It centres on the experiences of a young man who attempts to escape from his claustrophobic Jewish family and predictable boring future (working in Dad’s café, marrying a nice Jewish girl) and in the course of the film encounters some of the harsher realities of life in Buenos Aires. Like the rebellious heroine of another Festival film, Left Luggage (Netherlands, 1998, Jeroen Krabbe), he ultimately acquires tolerance of his elders and acceptance of his heritage. The desire for flight from the pressures of family and community, and the longing for reconciliation and release from inter-generational tensions (if not open warfare) strike chords of recognition in local Jewish audiences. However, Left Luggage satisfied their desires more effectively than Waiting for the Messiah. It has a stronger emotional charge and allows the audience to indulge in a good cry. (It was so popular last year that the Director brought it back again this year, when it again played to packed houses.) Despite irritatingly mannered performances by the star-studded supporting cast (Maximilian Schell, Isabella Rossellini, Marianne Sagebrecht, Jeroen Krabbe and Chaim Topol), the central roles of the rebel heroine and her disturbed little charge are engaging, and the tragic denouement is cathartic. Unlike Waiting for the Messiah, it is a full-blooded melodrama whose emotional impact for local Jewish audiences – many of whom are children of Holocaust survivors – is heightened by the fact that both the nanny-heroine’s own parents and the father of the child she becomes attached to are haunted by the Holocaust.

Budapest featured strongly this year as the site of romance and the kind of melodrama that is both musically underscored and politically underlined. Apart from Sunshine, the Szabo family epic, there was Gloomy Sunday, a romantic melodrama with an hypnotic musical theme and German dialogue, and a more way-out quasi-surreal Hungarian-language movie, misleadingly titled Glamour. All three films featured Jewish characters caught up in the ideological seesaws and political excesses of modern Hungarian history. The Festival audience found Glamour laboured and confusingly disjointed – it was trying to emulate Underground, I think, but its director doesn’t have Kusturica’s extraordinarily anarchic vitality or flair – and responded much more favourably to the other two more conventional genre movies.

It is no surprise that the commercial distributors have picked up Sunshine – it is in English, carries an auteur label (an Istvan Szabo film) and a star-studded cast with a track record in classy literary adaptations (Ralph Fiennes, Jennifer Ehle, William Hurt, and Rosemary Harris), has a wide epic sweep, sumptuous costume and set design, artful cinematography and big themes. One can make a case for the triple casting of Fiennes as Ignatz, Adam and Ivan Sonnenschein – who, over the course of a century, repress their Jewish identity in favour of imperial loyalism (and legalism), Hungarian nationalism, and soviet communism, respectively. It could be argued that his constipated acting style is ideally suited to the role of repressed conformist. However, he is not an actor of the calibre of Klaus Maria Brandauer (the star of Colonel Redl and Mephisto) and, unlike Brandauer, seems incapable of investing the self-deceptions of his characters with a tragic pathos. He is also incapable of investing love scenes with sexual chemistry. (The English Patient is another glaring example of this limitation.) Jennifer Ehle too is a limited performer, charming but not big enough for her role here. (Helena Bonham-Carter would have been a better choice, I think. She has recently demonstrated a much larger emotional range. But a Continental actress would have been even better).

Szabo’s trenchant analysis of the psycho-social dynamics of careerism, and his sophisticated grasp of the fatal attractions of political idealism for the outsider, were better demonstrated in his earlier films. It is not necessary to portray three historical case studies to make the points that can be succinctly dramatised in one. Even if it is true that middle-class Jews in central Europe found career openings in Imperial Austria-Hungary, post-WW1 Hungary and Stalinist Hungary by making accommodations to the system, which included masking their origins by changing their names and converting to Christianity, and that ultimately they fell foul of the system when the political machinations of successive regimes aroused and exploited virulent forms of anti-semitism, the narrative seemed overly protracted and the historical canvas too broad. For most of us, who are unfamiliar with the complexities of 19th and 20th century Hungarian history, there was too much to absorb in one sitting. It might have worked better as a television mini-series, or serial; but the casting would remain a problem.

Gloomy Sunday (a German-Hungarian co-production directed by Rolf Schubel) is less ambitious, focusing on a limited number of characters over a limited period of time. It is better cast, more successful at representing romantic and sexual relationships, and more concentrated and cohesive in narrative. Its haunting musical theme not only charges the sound track with romantic melancholy but also functions as both the central motif and motive force of the narrative. The song, “Gloomy Sunday” was a popular song of the ’30s (one recorded by Billy Holiday, among others) that reputedly inspired a spate of suicides. In this romantic fiction, the lives and deaths of three men who love the same woman are linked to this tune. Laszlo (Joachim Krol) is a restaurateur, a Hungarian Jew; Andras (Stefano Dionisi) is a morose pianist, a Hungarian non-Jew; Hans (Ben Becker) is a German businessman, who later becomes a high-ranking Nazi, posted to Budapest. If the three men sound schematically typecast, the narrative convincingly weaves them together in a web of mutual distrust, friendship, jealousy, betrayal and revenge. Furthermore, as the object of their romantic passion, Erika Marozsan is much more dramatically convincing than Jennifer Ehle in the role of a passionate, strong, liberated woman. And though the treatment of political issues is less sophisticated than Szabo’s, the dramatization of Hans’s dilemmas and decisions when he is in a position to save Jewish lives at least by implication raises questions about Spielberg’s romantic representation of Schindler.

Gloomy Sunday was a crowd pleaser; so too were the romantic comedies, Yana’s Friends (Israel, Arik Kaplun) and Fast Food, Fast Women (US-Europe co-production, Amos Kollek), which played to full houses. Yana’s Friends is set in the Russian immigrant community of Tel Aviv during the Gulf War, with dialogue in Russian and Hebrew. It is directed by Russian émigré Arik Kaplun with screwball comic panache, and stars his winsome wife Evelyn as the heroine, Yana. Fast Food, Fast Women is set around a New York diner, where various pathetic representatives of the singles scene work and eat and chat before and after they set off in clumsy pursuit of sex and romance. Both films provide romance (and accompanying comedy) for an elderly as well as a young couple. In Fast Food, Fast Women, the trio of elderly widowers who congregate for breakfast at the diner are more engaging characters than the young romantic leads; they are awarded the best lines of comic dialogue and their clumsy attempts at romance are more poignant and edgily real than the frantic joyless couplings of the young. Yana’s Friends likewise provides comedy and romance for young and old but is more successful in linking their stories together in a continuous stream of madcap comic capers underscored by social satire, directed largely at the Russian immigrant community. It also manages to extract comic capital out of the Gulf War in an ingenious and hilarious fashion.

It could be said that one of the attractions of the Festival is that, in contrast to the ageism of the popular commercial cinema, it provided a plethora of interesting roles for senior citizens. Not just the afore-mentioned romantic comedies, most of the fiction films featured strong roles for mature age, if not elderly, men and women. The three main characters of Voyages (France, 1999), the subtlest and most demanding of the films screened, are three older women, mysteriously and obliquely related to each other, who display a common loneliness, sense of loss and disorientation. Its director, Emmanuel Finkiel, was formerly an assistant to Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and shares his preoccupation with brooding loners, interior states of being, spiritual unease, mysterious connections between people, and social dislocation. One of the most haunting scenes of the film features two busloads of elderly Jewish tourists staring bleakly at each other through the frosted panes of the bus windows as they pass each other in the Polish countryside on the way to and from Auschwitz.

The documentaries too featured a host of strong elderly characters. The seventy-year-old Kindertransportees who tell their stories in Mark Jonathan Harris’s Into the Arms of Strangers, the women in particular, linger in the memory. Though comprised of a range of personalities and types, as well as a diversity of experience, these talking heads are unusually thoughtful and affecting. When the composure of the more restrained and sophisticated interviewees momentarily slips, when the loquacious become uncharacteristically silent or incoherent, when a morose victim is suddenly shown in the role of social activist, and when the excessive emotionalism of another is unexpectedly endowed with retrospective irony, the film is incredibly moving and thought-provoking. The unseen interviewer (or interviewers) who elicited these revealing testimonies must have been very sensitive as well as thorough in research. The film is also very effectively edited, with lingering close-ups of the faces giving personal testimony tellingly inter-cut with appropriate archival newsreels, old movie footage and old family photographs. Adrian Martin in his review of the film in The Age (November 23rd 2000) claimed the film fudges the facts. I do not agree as I recognized the visual footage as authentically archival.

Another documentary which likewise featured senior citizens who survived the war due to the efforts of strangers, The Children of Chabannes, is a less sophisticated film, with blander interviews, although it too has its affecting moments. It is a personal film made by the daughter of one of the children who survived due to the courageous and caring efforts of the non-Jewish head of the Jewish Children’s Home and the local village schoolteachers in Chabannes, a small village in Vichy France, who sheltered them and prevented their transportation. The film was made as a homage to these “Righteous Gentiles”, who were not motivated by Christian belief but by human decency and commitment to the Resistance to defy the fascist authorities and endanger their own lives.

There was no non-fiction film this year that exhibited the wit, confrontational candour and filmic ingenuity of Alan Berliner’s family portraits (shown at previous Festivals). The documentaries were in the main formally conventional and covered well-trodden themes. However, some of those produced on video impressed me, for varying reasons. One was an Israeli documentary which unflinchingly and disturbingly confronted the violence and rancour of Arab-Jewish conflict in Hebron, past and present. In it, the granddaughter of survivors of the 1929 massacre of the Jewish community of Hebron interviews elderly members of her family and their friends who recall the shocking event while also recalling instances of friendship between the two communities. The archival footage is disturbing, as are the scenes of Hebron today under Israeli military rule. But two of the elderly women interviewees, who lost parents and siblings in the 1929 massacre, were surprisingly free of rancour and displayed an impressive breadth of understanding. What I Saw in Hebron ultimately endorses the wisdom of the old, as against the fanaticism of the young, and was thus another case of strong representation for senior citizens.

I didn’t manage to see the whole programme of music documentaries, which played to full houses, but was intrigued by Pierre-Henri Salfati’s The Jazzman from the Gulag, which told the story of jazz musician, Eddie Rosner, previously unknown to me. The clumsy continuity devices employed – the use of a first-person narrating voice, inappropriately English, purporting to be that of the deceased musician, and the recurrent image of a pen writing on paper, symbolising the writing of his memoirs – jarred somewhat, but the research was impressive, the interviews extensive and the archival footage fascinating. Originally named Adolf, Eddie Rosner was born in Berlin to Polish-Jewish parents and became a popular trumpeter with jazz bands before becoming a bandleader. Obliged to leave Germany after 1933, he moved to Lodz, then Warsaw, and then – at the onset of war – to Russia. Everywhere he went, he established jazz bands and attracted audiences. The most interesting part of his career concerned his life in Soviet Russia, during and after the war. It appears that the Commissar of Bielorussia was a jazz fan who fostered his career; during the war, Rosner travelled all over Russia, where he was very popular with civilian and army audiences, and even gave a private concert for Comrade Stalin. But after the war, as a foreign Jew who played decadent American music, he was labelled a treacherous cosmopolitan and exiled to the Gulag. But here too the officer in charge turned out to be a jazz fan, and allowed him to mould a group of prisoners into a professional-standard jazz band and lead the officers’ military band as well. The film includes interviews with people who worked with him at different times in different places, and archival footage of his performances – including his star turn of playing two trumpets simultaneously. I had never heard of him but it seems that Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong all admired him. This was one of those pleasant surprises which showed that you can learn something new from a documentary film, even a flawed one.

The documentaries about martyrs, heroes and victims of WWII, screened on the final day in Melbourne, attracted only a small audience. The ground has been too well trodden, and most of them were unremarkable television productions. One of them did however surprise me. Settela (made by Dutch filmmaker, Cherry Duyns) was structured as a quest on the part of an investigative journalist. His quest was to identify the young girl who peers out of an opening in the cattle-car on the train leaving Westerbork (Holland) for Belsen, in an oft-reproduced image of the Holocaust. In the course of the film, he locates the photographer (a Jewish prisoner) and identifies the girl, who turns out to be a Gypsy rather than a Jew. This documentary confined its scope of investigation to a particular case and demonstrated yet again that the disciplined pursuit of the detail can be more rewarding and absorbing than ambitious attempts to cover the big picture.

It was noticeable this year that audiences for Yiddish classics are dwindling. The pre-war and early post-war migrants whose native language was Yiddish are dying off; not many younger members of the community understand Yiddish and anyway they prefer contemporary genre films to old low-budget B&W movies with poor sub-titles. Hopefully the downward trend will be reversed soon; there are signs of renewed interest in Yiddish language and Yiddish theatre among students and scholars; and the old films could reach a wider audience with new and better sub-titles. I understand Yiddish and enjoy the playful use of vernacular language in these films, so am grateful that the Festival continues to programme them. This year it provided a repeat screening of Yidl mitn Fidl (Poland, 1936), a popular old folksy musical comedy in which vaudeville star Molly Picon cross-dresses so that she can join a touring klezmer band and then promptly falls in love with a fellow musician. The resultant comic and romantic complications prefigure Barbra Streisand’s predicament in Yentl (USA, 1983). The other Yiddish film programmed was A brivele der Mamen (A Letter from Mother), a delightful maternal melodrama, full of music, laughter and tears, made in Warsaw on the eve of WWII with performances by stars of the Yiddish theatre. The Polish Jewish mother stoically endures the disintegration of her family due to the effects of modernity. Liberated daughter absconds with lover, elder son enlists and dies on the battlefield in WW1, unemployed songwriter husband migrates to America and sends for the younger son, leaving her alone and increasingly destitute. She is supported by her friends, a tailor and his wife, who supply comic relief; and is finally reunited with her long-lost younger son, who has become a famous singer, in America, when she attends a concert and hears him sing his father’s old melodies, reducing her – and the audience – to tears. The film was devised to exploit the popularity of the sentimental Yiddish folksong, “A Brivele der Mamen”, but is in fact a satisfying film in its own right.

Overall, the Festival maintained its policy of catering to the desires of its audience, of programming some riskier or more experimental films (which this year included Glamour, Voyages and the Russian film, Barracks), and of including Yiddish classics in the Melbourne and Sydney programme. The Director knows his audience and astutely selects films that will please them but he also likes to stretch them and even sometimes shock them out of their complacency. One cannot expect more from a community Festival director.