Returning for a second year under the stewardship of Festival Director Eddie Tamir, who has revitalised the festival since coming into the position in 2012, the Jewish International Film Festival (JIFF) impressively spans the breadth of the Jewish diaspora in its programming choices. From the latest in intelligent Israeli cinema to documentaries exploring Jewish life across the world, it’s a festival that is surprisingly vibrant and varied.
Opening night film Fill the Void takes audiences into the world of match-matching in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Eighteen year old Shira is at an age where her family have started to negotiate with fellow orthodox families in order to find her a husband. But when her older sister Esther unexpectedly dies after giving birth to a son, her family’s desire to keep their grandchild close to them sees them attempting to convince her to marry her bereaved brother-in-law.
The dark legacy of the Holocaust is frequently explored in Jewish cinema, and JIFF has plenty of content that grapples with its continuing presence in Jewish lives. New German Cinema auteur Margarethe von Trotta pulls no punches with Hannah Arendt, her adaptation of the story of the journalist for The New Yorker who famously covered the trials of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, resulting in Arendt’s famous ‘banality of evil’ thesis, which caused fury and consternation in intellectual and Jewish circles.
Wakolda is an ominous tale inspired by true events, where an Argentine family is befriended by a doctor who turns out to be none other than Josef Mengele, on the run from Mossad agents yet still continuing his unnatural and dangerous experiments in attempting to create ‘perfect’ human specimens. Sparse, eerie, and with a haunting score by The Dirty Three, Walkolda lingers in an unsettling but indelible way.
Lest you think that Jewish cinema is all about weighty content, there’s also Cupcakes, an Israeli/French co-production comedy about a group of arty friends in Tel Aviv who write a song that unexpectedly becomes Israel’s entry into a song contest that bears remarkable resemblance to Eurovision. With the requisite amount of camp and music by Scissor Sisters’ Babydaddy, Cupcakes is a lot of fun. Fun of the more gory kind is also to be had with Cannon Fodder, Israel’s first zombie film.
Also offering a guaranteed laugh is JIFF’s closing night film When Comedy Went to School. Focusing on the first wave of Jewish comedians who would go on to dominate American television and stand-up comedy, from Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Rodney Dangerfield, to the likes of Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce and Jerry Seinfeld, When Comedy Went to School examines exactly why all these comedians cut their teeth the same region in upstate New York where Jewish entertainers were encouraged to refine the art of making people laugh.
JIFF plays at Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick from November 6 to 24.