The Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary - not bad for an event that was originally planned as a one-off.
11 Nov 2009 - 4:05 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

In 1989, Les Rabinowicz helmed the inaugural Festival of Jewish Cinema in collaboration with the Australian Film Institute in what was originally intended as a one off program. This year, the festival is celebrating its 20th year with screenings in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Les Rabinowicz becomes emotional when he recalls the “rousing” sell out season of the first Festival of Jewish Cinema at the Trak Cinema in Melbourne and the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney in 1989. While he initially “didn't expect to be running more than one festival” its success inspired the establishment of the Jewish Film Foundation of Australia, a “professionally orientated film organisation [created] to run the festival and to show films that otherwise wouldn't be shown in Australia for as wide an audience as possible”. The Foundation has administered the Festival of Jewish Cinema ever since.

The essence of the festival has always focused on what Rabinowicz terms “the genre of Jewish Films” — films with a Jewish subject, theme or main character, with submissions by non-Jewish directors also welcomed. Twenty years on, the tradition continues with head programmer Diane Perelsztejn highlighting her pre-requisite for selection as “a Jewish theme”, citing that “it doesn't matter who the director is, or who is on the screen as long as it's carrying something about what it means to be Jewish today or yesterday.”

Under Rabinowicz's 20-year directorship, programming has mainly consisted of “films shown at major overseas film festivals that aren't shown In Australia” - and it's a selection process that continues to this day. In 2009, Perelsztejn admits to "following her nose" when it comes to premiere screenings at the Berlin International Film Festival and from the Cannes International Film Festival as well as their respective markets, where the bulk of films are sourced.

The 2009 program includes films from South America, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Israel and Tunisia. World premieres include local documentary filmmaker, Rod Freedman's Wrong Side of the Bus, with screenings in both Melbourne and Sydney to be introduced by the filmmaker and followed by a Q and A session. This year also sees the continuation the festival's long-standing practice of following the work of filmmakers over time and includes the Australian premiere screening of the Israel-German co-production, Adam Resurrected (pictured top) by veteran American screenwriter and director, Paul Scrader starring Jeff Goldblum. Also on offer is a special presentation of Empty Nest by Argentinian director, Daniel Burman and the Australian premiere of He's My Girl by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann in what Perelsztejn terms “a follow up to a film that we had in 1997, When Man is a Woman”. She says, “When He's My Girl was at Cannes we were there at the first public screening. We knew Jean-Jacques. He came as a guest of the festival in 1998”. When He's My Girl was at the market, Perelsztejn was “first in line”.

Perelsztejn recognises a strong theme in the festival this year of films told through the perspective of children. Perelsztejn refers to Rustem Abdrashov's The Gift to Stalin, a Kazakhstan-Poland-Russia-Israel co-production as one such film. The film is set in 1949 during the period of Joseph Stalin's ongoing campaign of deportations of ethnic minorities from Moscow. A young Jewish boy, Sashka — a victim of one such deportation — is smuggled off the train by his family. The Gift to Stalin transverses Sashka life as he attempts reunification with his birth family through the prism of Stalin's reign. For Perelsztejn, the film represents a “completely different sensitivity” for the festival, which has never before screened a Kazakh film and she likens it to both Jan Sverák Czech drama Kolya and Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 classic, Cinema Paradiso. The festival also screens its first Slovak film, Jiri Chlumsky's Broken Promise. In another first, classification of all films in the festival is open to audiences from the age of fifteen with the Canadian-Czech-Japanese co-production, Inside Hannah's Suitcase — another Australian premiere — open to children of all ages.

The festival screens these premieres together with a retrospective to commemorate its milestone and to re-screen films that touched a nerve with its audience over its 20-year history. Screenings in the retrospective include previous audience favourite, Alexeï Guerman's 1998 Russian language feature Khroustaliov, My Car! and Jeroen Krabbé's 1998 film, Left Luggage starring Isabella Rossilini. The retrospective also screens an encore of the eight-part Israeli television drama series, A Touch Away screened in two four-hour blocks plus intermission.

The 2009 Festival of Jewish Cinema screens programs in Sydney from 11 – 30 November and Melbourne from November 12 – 29. See for details.