Hollywood stars in Jewish films

A scene from Son of Saul, the powerful drama set in Auschwitz that won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

HOLLYWOOD star Natalie Portman’s Hebrew language film A Tale of Love and Darkness and the Cannes Film Festival’s prize-winning hit Son of Saul are among the top movies in this year’s Jewish International Film Festival (JIFF), which opens in Sydney on October 28 and in Melbourne on November 4.

Festival director Eddie Tamir says the festival, now in its fourth year under his leadership, is the biggest ever, with 60 international films and documentaries, plus a shorter program being screened in Perth (October 31, November 1 and 8), Brisbane (November 21-22 and 29) and Auckland (November 14, 15 and 22).

The festival will showcase films from as far afield as Britain, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, South Africa and the USA with a special emphasis on quality films from Israel.

“This year we have a world-class line-up for the festival,” says Tamir. “It’s very exciting to be presenting the highest quality in world cinema.”

Earlier this year Tamir attended the Cannes Film Festival and the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv to source films for JIFF.

JIFF’s opening night film is Son of Saul, the Hungarian drama which made headlines at Cannes by winning the Grand Prix – an amazing feat considering it was Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’s debut in the official selection at Cannes.

Son of Saul is set around Saul Auslander, a Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando at one of the Auschwitz crematoriums who is faced with burying the corpse of a boy he takes for his son. The film follows a father’s quest for moral redemption amid the horrors of Auschwitz.

“Son of Saul is regarded as a great film and offers a new story set against the Holocaust,” comments Tamir.

Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness is based on the early life of celebrated Israeli author Amos Oz in Jerusalem, just before and after the establishment of Israel in 1948. The film marks Portman’s directorial debut and sees her play a starring role. It received acclaim when it screened at Cannes this year.

“It’s wonderful to see a major Hollywood actor speak Hebrew in a lead role,” says Tamir.

Another film with Hollywood star power is Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, which revisits the controversial 1960s experiments of social psychologist, Stanley Milgram.

German director Philipp Stolzl’s The Physician is an epic 150-minute film with a cast including Ben Kingsley, Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgard and Olivier Martinez that is set in 11th century London.

Based on Noah Gordon’s popular novel, the saga is set around a young Christian who has to disguise himself as a Jew in order to study medicine at the legendary Avicenna school in Persia.

“The fact that we have quality films with Hollywood stars tackling Jewish themes makes this year’s festival very exciting,” says Tamir.

Also screening at JIFF is Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s 2016 Oscar entry for best foreign language film, a fact-based drama starring Alexander Fehling (Inglourious Basterds) as a principled young prosecutor in postwar Frankfurt, intent on exposing the conspiracy of prominent institutions and officials who sought to hide the crimes of former Nazis.

Bulgarian Rhapsody – Bulgaria’s 2015 Oscar entry for best foreign language film – is set in 1943 when the Jews of Bulgaria were forced to adhere to Germany’s rule.

The friendship of teenagers Moni and Giogio is tested when they both fall for Shelli, a 17-year-old Jewish girl from Greece. This story of teenage love set against the backdrop of the Holocaust is directed by Ivan Nitchev.

About 50 per cent of the films in this year’s festival are Israeli productions, including Israeli director Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words, a comedy-drama that follows three siblings who, upon the death of their mother, embark on a life-changing journey into the past.

In the early days of the Jewish State when there was only one TV channel, an Egyptian movie was screened every Friday afternoon, attracting a large audience of Jewish Israelis. Arab Movie, directed by Eyal Sagui Bizawe and Sara Tsifroni, examines how this phenomenon came about.

Sabena Hijacking – My Version is a powerful docu-drama by Israeli director Rani Saar that retells the 1972 hijacking of a flight from Vienna to Israel by four Fatah terrorists. Over 24 nerve-racking hours, the Israeli authorities attempt to negotiate with the hijackers while secretly planning to capture them and rescue the passengers.

The film features interviews with many of those involved in the rescue, including then-transportation minister Shimon Peres and current PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then one of the Israeli soldiers in the rescue operation. One of the Palestinian hijackers is also interviewed.

For horror movie fans there is JeruZalem, set around two American girls who are invited by a handsome young archaeologist to party in Jerusalem, but face a survival battle against demons and zombies. Directed by Doron and Yoav Paz, it is billed as one of Israel’s first horror movie hits.

Among the acclaimed documentaries being screened at JIFF this year is the controversial Censored Voices, which reveals provocative and, until now, suppressed recordings of Israeli soldiers fresh from the battlefield of 1967’s Six-Day War. It won the award for best documentary at this year’s Ophir Awards, known as the Israeli Oscars.

Another controversial documentary is Beyond the Fear, which investigates Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Germany’s “grande dame” of cinema, Hannelore Elsner, takes centre-stage in To Life! as an ageing cabaret singer who shares an unlikely bond with a dispirited, young man.

Two Australian-made documentaries screen at this year’s festival. On the Banks of the Tigris: The Hidden Story of Iraqi Music is an uplifting musical odyssey that uncovers the hidden story of Iraqi music, while Pockets of Hope is a film about facing up to a difficult past, while creating a hopeful future.

Directed by Judy Menczel, Pockets of Hope stars Sydney singer Fay Sussman who returns to Poland despite having vowed never to do so. She is thrilled to discover a generation of Poles working to establish a new relationship with the Jewish community and through her music embarks on a journey of reconciliation.

The documentary Seed of Life charts a bereaved mother’s quest to make her late son a father through the devoted assistance of a fertility doctor and a surrogate.

Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa focuses on the famed lawyer, writer, art lover and freedom fighter.

For fans of the cult Israeli TV series Fauda, which depicts both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, JIFF will screen the latest episodes in four three-episode blocks and also in one marathon session.

The Jewish International Film Festival will be held in Sydney at the Event Cinemas, Bondi Junction from October 28 to November 18, in Melbourne at the Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick from November 4-29, and in Perth (October 31, November 1 and 8), Brisbane (November 21-22 and 29) and Auckland (November 14, 15 and 22). Bookings:  www.jiff.com.au.

REPORT by  Danny Gocs