Preview: Jewish Film Festival

The annual Jewish International Film Festival is celebrating its 22nd of bringing culturally specific, but no less interesting and broad-minded, cinema to Australian audiences. The festival began this past Thursday in Sydney and runs until the 18th at Event Cinemas Bondi Junction, and in Melbourne it begins today until the 25th at the Classic Cinemas in Elsternwick, the Jewish hub in the south of Melbourne.

Dorfman

Before even beginning to watch this affable, if slight, Los Angeles-set romantic comedy I was already on side. Star Sara Rue (Less Than Perfect) is such a spark of personality that she can sell even the roughest of material. Here, Rue plays Deb Dorfman, the struggling daughter taking care of her widowed father (Elliot Gould, Contagion) and accountant in the family firm, is in a rut. As rom-com protagonists usually are, she’s in love with a friend, the hunky Jay (Johann Urb, Resident Evil: Retribution), but forms a friendship with the exotic artist next door, Cookie (Haaz Sleiman, The Visitor). There’s also a sexually frustrated brother (Jonathan Chase, Another Gay Movie), and a Polish model (Sophie Monk, Date Movie) whose face has seemingly contorted into that of a balloon animal.

Deb (Sara Rue) and Cookie (Haaz Sleiman) in Dorfman

It’s all very predictable as Deb moves from the comfortable complacency of the suburbs for the fast-paced world of the big city and all the bright lights and eye-opening new experiences it holds. She even gets a makeover! It would all be rather unbearable without the effervescent personality of Rue, who is as gifted with selling wacky slapstick as she is the romantic drama. Jewish viewers will surely see the humour in the home life situations, but it never delves all that deep. Dorfman is nice and cute, which is sometimes what the doctor ordered.

Yossi

A sequel to the lovely, tender gay romantic drama of 2002, Yossi and Jagger, Eytan Fox’s (The Bubble) follow-up is titled Yossi for a reason. The heartbreak of the original’s finale is very much on the tip of this sequel’s tongue as Yossi (Ohad Knoller) attempts to forge a career whilst fumbling to hide his sexuality, little realising that the Israel around him has changed and is far more accepting than it was ten years prior.

Yossi (Ohad Knoller), right, tries to escape grief in Yossi

No more clearly is this point made than when he offers a ride to a group of soldiers who missed their bus to their port of call. Amongst them is Tom (Oz Zehavi), openly gay and attracted to Yossi’s reserved nature. Yossi isn’t necessarily about their burgeoning relationship, but rather Yossi’s path to personal acceptance. Whether its his increasing unease over his weight and appearance compared to the adonises that surround him, or the emergence of Jagger’s mother at the hospital he works at, bringing emotions flooding back. Filled with many of the awkward life moments that many gay men will recognise, as well as a freshly lensed look at the new Israel, Yossi is a strong and touching take on grief. It’s also an anecdote to the fluffy, lobotomised excuses for gay cinema that frequently populates the DVD shelves.

Six Million and One

Family documentaries can be tricky to master as the filmmaker can tend to get lost in his or her family’s history without a critical eye. David Fisher’s (Mostar Haloch Vashov) decision to direct his siblings’ journey to the concentration camps of his father is for the most part a deftly affective portrait of a man that we never get to meet. Unfortunately, Fisher is not an objective filmmaker in this case and Six Million and One eventually peters out to a protracted conclusion. I have no doubt that many viewers will find its journey to be quite moving, but needed a keener eye to streamline the family squabbles and reminiscences that ultimately bog down the final stretches.

The Fisher family visit the locations of their father’s imprisonment in Six Million and One

Fisher, his sister, and two brothers certainly make for entertaining subjects – I doubt he would have made the film if wasn’t aware of their big screen personalities – and the discovery of their father’s unpublished memoirs is a beautiful starting point for this documentary. As they travel to the camps as well as the aircraft tunnels that their father, Joseph, miraculously survived the construction of, family disagreements and opinions rear their ugly heads. Eventually dissolving into scene after scene that replicate those clichéd family dinners seen in wacky comedies, they do still help carve out a full picture of their Holocaust survivor father. I just couldn’t help but feel the film was more of a therapy lesson for the filmmaker more than anything else. A quick detour to an interview with two American soldiers involved in Joseph’s liberation is a particular highlight and helps accentuate the fact that the scars of WWII inflict generation upon generation.

Life in Stills

A sweetly charming mini-documentary (it’s only an hour in length) from debut director Tamar Tal is ultimately a bit too thin when it really could have expanded its runtime to delve deeper into its many themes. Tal’s camera follows the effort to save the last original Tel Aviv photo shop that is run by 96-year-old Miriam and her grandson, Ben. Miriam’s daughter (and Ben’s mother) was murdered by her husband some years prior and this tragedy continues to loom over their touching, caring relationship. Elsewhere, the changing face of Tel Aviv is ever present in their lives in the government’s desire for gentrification as well as Ben’s homosexuality.

Ben and Miriam are a photographic family in Life in Stills

At only 58 minutes long it will be impossible for viewers to not wish Life in Stills was a bit longer. It’s obvious that Tal has jumped headfirst into the land battle, but little effort is made to give much of a background to the situation. Likewise, the local government’s side isn’t gone into far enough, nor is the tragedy of Ben’s mother examined in detail. What Life in Stills does achieve most of all, however, is a glowing portrait of this wonderful familial relationship. Anybody who has helped care for an elderly relative will surely find their sprightly repartee to be engaging and the caustic tell-it-like-it-is attitude of Miriam is a true delight. The photos that Miriam’s late husband took are stunning and punctuate the film’s narrative like gorgeous black and white postcards from a forgotten era.

Make Hummus Not War

Similarly to Life in Stills, this Australian documentary by Trevor Graham (Mabo: Life of an Island Man) is perhaps too thin for the big screen, and would be more at home on the smaller screen for audiences to happen across. That being said, it’s still a nice little film that frames the Israeli and Palestinian civil war around the apparently quite high stakes world of hummus production. Yes, the middle eastern dip that has become so prevalent in our society as of late – one stat from the film states the industry was worth $5mil in America in 1995, but today it’s worth over $400mil! – is actually a perfect metaphor for the war torn region.

The delicacy at the centre of Make Hummus Not War

I would have preferred Graham explored the terrain with a bit more depth – there are glimpses, as several people discuss how the war has affected them terribly – and at only 77 minutes long, it’s not hard to picture the filmmaker doing so. Make Hummus Not War is more an episode of Food Safari: Israel, with the director getting in on the taste testing fun. His back-story and relationship to the region is nicely discussed and his self-confessed “hummus tragic” status is never in question. It just may have been nice for the film to stretch itself across a broader regional canvas beyond the foodie aspect. As charming as they are.


For the entire JIFF program please check out the official website.

About Glenn Dunks

Glenn Dunks loves films, that we know for sure. As well as being a film critic for Trespass Magazine where his wildly unpredictable tastes you’ve grown accustomed to, Glenn is the creator and writer of film blog Stale Popcorn (http://stalepopcornau.blogspot.com) , film editor at Onya Magazine, has written for The Big Issue and Encore and has been heard on JOY 94.3. Glenn is based in Melbourne, is an active Twitterer (@stalepopcornau) and is and is particular fond of Australian, horror and queer cinema.