A landmark initiative from the organisers of the Jewish International Film Festival is devoted to unearthing new stories about the powerful legacy of the Holocaust.
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10 Mar 2014 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

Eddie Tamir is the director and owner of the Jewish International Film Festival. As he prepared the program for the 2013 festival, he found a raft of Holocaust-themed films amongst the submissions, not a surprising thing in the circumstances. What moved him, he says, was not only their great quality, but also their scope and ambition. “I knew we couldn’t include them in the JIFF because that wouldn’t make for a balanced festival,” he says. Tamir decided to hold off writing the standard rejection letters to the filmmakers involved and instead started to make lists, not really understanding what he could do until he made a discovery: “I realised that no one had attempted a Holocaust series of new films – not here, not in the States, not Europe, though there was a program in Melbourne a few years ago, but they didn’t show premieres of recent features.”

Tamir elected to present a side-bar event under the aegis of the JIFF. Called The Holocaust Film Series – Tamir felt that to use the word ‘festival’ seemed inappropriate – the program features 22 films from eighteen countries including Australia, Croatia, Jamaica, Macedonia and Ireland.

The season opens on 20 March in Melbourne and 23 March in Sydney.

In the interview below, Tamir gives a preview of series’ highlights and talks about “Holocaust fatigue” and filmmakers veteran and emerging who appear determined to offer unique angles on a human catastrophe, he says, that most people only think they know.

The central theme of Holocaust culture – so to speak – is ‘never forget’. But there are signs that the consciousness of the Shoah is dying in the popular psyche. You tell a story of a famous author travelling on a plane. A passenger is reading The Diary of Anne Frank, the famous story of a Dutch girl in hiding from the Nazis. A flight attendant knew the book and told the reader: ‘Oh, she dies in the end.’

Yes. I heard that from Book Thief author Markus Zusak. It happened to him. He felt that kind of insensitivity told him something important.

The reasons why the films in this series are being made and there’s an audience for them is that it doesn’t matter how much you read you still don’t get it – the Holocaust. You don’t quite get the enormity of it and why it happened and how it happened… so that’s why they’ll continue to be films about this because of the human curiosity of just trying to get a grip on the Holocaust. A positive reason is that these are powerful films and they resonate. They are not irrelevant.

A lot of the films in the series present the idea that the past is never past, it never really dies. That is, the Holocaust is alive, even if most survivors have passed on, because its consequences echo across the generations since.

We’re in an ahistorical society and the flip side of that is that it is about forgetting. Then there is ‘Holocaust fatigue’ where people say ‘move on and there’s no more to be learnt and let’s live for today.’ And we challenge that with this series. I’ve seen many Holocaust-themed films, but each one in this program has something that has not necessarily been done before. There are experimental films, there’s a lesbian love story, In Hiding, a story about a Jewish Catholic Cardinal, a story of Jewish/Muslim co-operation…

The tradition of the Holocaust film goes back to the period immediately after the end of World War II, notable titles: The Last Stage (1947, Poland), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, USA), The Shop on Main Street (1965, Czech), The Holocaust TV series (1978, USA), Sophie’s Choice (1982, USA) and, of course, Schindler’s List (1993, USA). So the theme, indeed the word, conjures certain images: starvation, barbed wire, huddled figures in hiding, Nazi’s in pursuit of innocents…

Yes. I know those films and those images, and people told me that this was a ‘worthy’ project… but the films in this series aren’t depressing. They follow a human impulse to make films that say something positive about human beings rather than just show absolute nihilism and evil.

Documentary is a big part of the Holocaust story on film – Night and Fog (1955) and Shoah (1985) to name two giants of the form – and roughly 50 percent of the films in the series are non-fiction.

That’s a function of what is out there on the subject. Who would have thought that 70 years on there would be so many films, so many different kinds of films? A new kind of Holocaust film is emerging where filmmakers are telling survivor stories as a kind of ‘last hurrah’. We have Complicit (USA, 2013) about the SS St. Louis, about a liner of Jewish refugees, turned away by the US government in 1939. One of the survivors lives in Melbourne and will be there for the screening. And we have the Oscar nominated short The Lady in No. 6 (Canada, UK, USA, 2014) about the oldest survivor of the Holocaust, who is 109 and plays the piano every day (Winner of the 2014 Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subjects).

Highlights

BESA: The Promise

(USA, 2012)                           

“This is a film about Muslims rescuing Jews,” says Tamir. “I think that’s why that story is so powerful today: it’s connecting to something contemporary.”

A documentary about the Nazi occupation of Albania, the film is a story of a ‘sacred mission’ that takes 60 years to complete.

 

Bureau 06: The Architects of the Eichmann Trial

(Israel, 2013)

A riveting, revelatory documentary that presents the story of how a group of investigators built the case against one of the central architects of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann. Artfully combining a range of doco techniques – talking heads/re-enactments – it’s typical of so many films here: a movie about how the Holocaust impacted the ‘Jewishness’ of a generation of Jews for whom the Shoah is only distant history.

 

H I Jew Positive

(Israel, Poland, 2013)

“There are so many films about identity in the series, The French Cardinal, and Torn (2011) from Israel, about a Polish priest who discovers late in life he was born a Jew – and this film, which is one of the best,” says Tamir.

It’s a 60-minute documentary about the ‘New Jews of Poland’, a generation of young Catholic people who have discovered that their Jewishness was deliberately suppressed by their parents. It’s the story – covering 15 years – of four second and third generation Holocaust survivors and what they find out about who they really are.

 

The Jewish Cardinal

(France, 2012)

A feature-length TV biopic about Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and whose vocation took him to the centre of power in the Vatican where his conviction as a Catholic Jew brought forth much universal soul-searching; inter-faith conflicts – and his own scruples – reached a climax when Polish nuns plant a cross at Auschwitz.

 

Lonely Planet

(Israel, Russia, 2012)

“I think everyone goes into a Holocaust-themed film with a certain expectation,” says Tamir. But he says this experimental film will no doubt confound the unsuspecting. “It blends fiction and documentary and was made by a group of young Israeli filmmakers who go on a ghost chase, which is a legend of sorts. It concerns a 12-year-old boy from Bialystock, who in order to escape the Nazis, fled to the forest and lived with wolves for year.”

This ambitious film – which uses re-enactments and new interviews with anyone connected with the story – ends up in Siberia, and solves the mystery but it’s also, Tamir says, a movie about movie-making.

For more information the JIFF's Holocaust Film Series, visit the official website.