Earlier this year Melbourne-based distributor/exhibitor Eddie Tamir put a proposal to the organisers of the Jewish International Film Festival: Either reinvigorate the programme, which he felt needed a facelift, or he’d run his own festival.
Officials at the Jewish Film Foundation of Australia, which had staged the Jewish International Film Festival for 22 years, opted to let Tamir take the reins of the festival, making it one of the few commercially operated fests in Australia.
That was in mid-July, giving Tamir a very short time in which to pull together the program and arrange the guests as this edition kicks off November 1 at Event Cinemas Bondi Junction and in Melbourne on November 7 at the Classic Cinemas Elsternwick. To his credit, he’s assembled 34 features and documentaries from 14 countries, including 24 Australian premieres.
Tamir draws on his experience in acquiring, distributing and exhibiting Jewish-themed films since he took over the historic Classic in 1997 (the fest’s venue for the past seven years) and launched his own distribution business, Champion Pictures (now re-branded JIFF Distribution). He’s expanding the Classic to six screens later this year, he acquired the disused Cameo Cinemas in Belgrave (now seven screens) and he’s planning an eight-plex in Hawthorn, the Lido, due to open late 2013.
“It’s been very intense,” Tamir tells SBS Film of the past four months. “A lot of people had been telling me that being a film festival director is not a full time job but they’re mistaken.
“We’re relaunching and reinvigorating the festival with a new aesthetic, new graphics, on top of the film selection, while also connecting to the 22-year history. The festival was facing challenges and the program was getting smaller. There are so many other festivals now and distributors often are picking up films and bypassing festivals and doing a normal theatrical release.”
Steven Saragossi, who was appointed as the foundation’s chief executive in May, says that entrusting JIFF to Tamir has freed up his organisation to develop new ways of pursuing its charter to explore Jewish culture and identity through the medium of film. He cites the inaugural You Don't Have to Be Jewish! Film Festival, which launches next February in Brisbane; if that model works, the plan is to stage similar events annually in Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Byron Bay and perhaps the Northern Territory.
Among other foundation initiatives, documentaries will be screened in schools and State Libraries to raise awareness of The Holocaust; and there will be a nationwide competition in 2013 to find emerging filmmakers to produce a 10-minute short reflecting how they perceive Jewish culture in Australia today, held in collaboration with major film schools. The foundation retains its ties to JIFF as a sponsor.
Tamir has compiled a programme that strikes an even balance between Israeli productions and films from the Jewish diaspora around the world. “I’ve secured fresh and current films that people can feel part of the debate and discussion of,” he says.
The opening attraction in Sydney and Melbourne is Israeli 2012 box office hit The World is Funny (pictured), director Shemi Zarhin’s multi-layered dramedy focusing on a fractured family in Tiberias, Israel, where reality and fantasy intertwine.
The One that Got Away is UK director Lindsay Pollock’s account of Hungarian-born Thomas Beck, who discovered 60 years after escaping from a Nazi prison that Edith Grieman, the fellow internee with whom he had fallen in love, was living in the same suburb in Melbourne. While remaining faithful to the fest’s traditional older-skewing audience, he’s also aiming to appeal to younger demographics with titles such as Would You Have Sex with an Arab?, in which that question is posed to revellers in the bars of Tel Aviv while people on the streets of Jerusalem are asked, “Would you have sex with an Israeli Jew”?
Eytan Fox’s Yossi is a sequel to 2003’s Yossi and Jagger, the saga of a closeted gay man, a doctor who works in gay-friendly Tel Aviv. In Hitler’s Children, Chanoch Zeevi tracks down the offspring of senior Nazi commanders to examine how that legacy had affected them.
Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story chronicles the life of Lieut. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, the only Israeli commando killed during the 1976 hostage rescue at Uganda’s Entebbe airport. Meni Yaesh’s God’s Neighbours follows a vigilante squad of young Jewish fundamentalists who enforce their code against more liberal Jews and Arabs who disrupt the Sabbath peace. Among the titles that have screened at other festivals are Dead Europe, The First Faginand Kaddish for a Friend.
The closer is Hava Nagila, Roberta Grossman’s exploration of how an obscure Ukrainian composition evolved into the most famous Jewish song of celebration, featuring interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy and Regina Spektor.
Among the guests scheduled to take part in Q&A sessions are Pollock, Dead Europe director Tony Krawitz and The First Fagin co-director Helen Gaynor.
Says Tamir, “My publicist tells me that Jewish (cinema) is not as sexy as French and Italian. We’re trying to bring the sexy back into Jewish. There are 5,000 years of storytelling. Hopefully the wider community will join us.
“The foundation has created an amazing tradition. I am taking a commercial gamble but I really care about my culture and exploring it properly. Hopefully it’ll work out on both counts: people will be artistically satisfied and we can make a bit of money out of it.”
He concludes on an optimistic note, “We’ll be looking to expand to other States and New Zealand when the time is right, once Sydney and Melbourne are humming.”
The 2012 Jewish International Film Festival runs in Sydney (1-18 November) and Melbourne (7-25 November). See full schedule here. See our full coverage of the festival, including reviews of films in this year's progran here.