With 55 premier films from 20 different countries, the much-loved Jewish International Film Festival has just released their 2022 program, with the central theme of "an ode to the heroes of change".
"I suppose [the theme] stood out for me because, in these last couple of years, everything's changing, and whatever the world was before, everybody needs to adapt to new circumstances." Artistic director Eddie Tamir is buoyant discussing the shift in films that have graced our screens in recent years - not that this was a conscious effort when curating the program.
"When I was thinking about all of that, I was thinking about the films in our line-up and I realised that the hero's journey is generally about adapting to change and challenges. And we have many features and documentaries that do just that, and many documentaries in particular that have people that have challenged the status quo in all parts of the world. So that stood out for me."
"[It was not] an intention at the outset, more of a reflection on the collection that we stumbled on by either good practice or good fortune. And I suppose being minorities in so many countries over so many centuries, Jews have generally had to adapt to change and movement."
Presenting 31 feature films, 25 documentaries, episodes from one television series and six short films alongside a suite of live arts events, the JIFF program really does have something for everyone.
"That's really at the heartbeat of the ideal of a multicultural society, in that you just get absolutely focused and authentic on who you are and who your people are, and really delve into the treasures of that culture. And in there, magically things are discovered that really translate and resonate to everybody.
We have great Jewish community support, but we also have great filmgoing community support, because we're very focused on having Australian premieres. So these films are the first opportunity to see them, sometimes they're the only opportunity to see them in a cinema."
Thankfully, the festival this year is strictly running in theatres as opposed to online. When I asked Eddie about the importance of that, he lit up with delight. "It's more than important, it's critical, and it is the only way we would do it, so we've never done JIFF online virtually. We are totally into the shared experience, and especially in the film festival context, seeing films together, sharing and debating and arguing about it, feeling it together - yeah, it's paramount."
Kicking off the festival is the opening night film, Olivier Dahan's monumental biopic 'Simone Veil: A Woman of the Century'. Eddie had this to say on the film - and in particular, the icon that was Simone Veil.
"[She's] definitely in the European zeitgeist, if not the world's. She died recently, and she's like the equivalent of the European RBG [Ruth Bader Ginsburg]. She was a Holocaust survivor, lawyer, human rights advocate, and was instrumental in changing abortion law in France when she was a member of parliament. So, a colossal person in history - and this is a biopic done by the hot French director Olivier Dahan, who did 'La Vie En Rose', the Edith Piaf story."
There's a wide array of French films being showcased at the festival, with Australian premiers of 'Haute Couture', 'If You See My Mother', 'The Man in the Basement', and Eddie's personal favourite pick of the festival, 'A Radiant Girl'.
"'Radiant Girl' premiered in Cannes last year and it is a Holocaust-themed film, but it's very fresh - if one can say that about a Holocaust genre film. It's focused on a 19-year-old Jewish French female actress who just dreams to be an actress and dreams to be in love. And it all takes place in the shadows of 1939 onwards, and how she somehow by choice, or just by virtue of her trying to focus on the positive, almost blocks out the historic realities of the moment, and just focuses on the positives in what she cares about. And so it creates a very unusual situation and very compelling, also mixing in some contemporary music. It's more in the 'Jojo Rabbit' genre than a straight historic Holocaust genre film, so I would say that's a very special film for me and for our team."
Of course, it wouldn't be a national festival without Australian stories for the big screen.
"It's fantastic to have some Australian films premiering. We have a film called 'Mother Mountain', which is a feature film with Jewish and Indigenous Australian themes to it, where a Jewish woman goes out into a rural area next to a very famous mountain in Indigenous culture, and somehow finds her place of healing with the various issues happening in her life. It's by a first time director, Celina Stang, and it's a great film."
"And we're premiering a film called 'Narrow Bridge', by also first-time director Esther Takeuchi, who is a Melbourne clinical psychologist, and she's made many trips to Israel, and the focus of her documentary is on Israeli, Jewish and Palestinian fathers, two of the fathers have children who are victims of the conflict. They try to heal themselves, each other and the world by seeking forgiveness and trying to move to a better place. So a very deep and well-done documentary."
Speaking of documentaries, they are often the cornerstone of what makes the JIFF such an important date on the film festival calendar, and this year is no exception. While most are centred on Israel or the Holocaust, there are also films this year focusing on global icons such as Sigmund Freund or Leonard Cohen.
"Well, let's start off with Leonard Cohen," Eddie continues. "So this new documentary is called 'Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song', and it's an amazing documentary. It's so rich and so moving, and it basically engages us with Leonard Cohen and the creation of the iconic song 'Hallelujah', its journey through the 40 years since its first incarnation, and its huge impact on the world and all the various people that have sung it. It follows Cohen's personal journey and his Jewish journey, in particular with this song, and just also how this song has unified the world. It's almost like in these big concerts when huge performers sing 'Hallelujah', it's like going to a massive world church. It's a very beautiful, beautiful thing how this small song by a poet really has transformed the world."
Other notable documentary highlights include 'I Am Here', chronicling the spirited South African Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal and her astonishing journey and unwavering appreciation of life. Documentaries on controversial figures include the thrilling true-crime documentary 'Dirty Tricks', offering audiences an insight into the world of competitive bridge. Then there's 'Speer Goes to Hollywood', which follows controversial Nazi figure Albert Speer, who dodged the death sentence and went on to attempt to callously whitewash his past.
Looking for something a little more light-hearted? 'Greener Pastures' is a box office hit in Israel, and one of the many feature highlights of the festival. "It's a comedy caper movie with an absolute warm, authentic family relationship. It's about a guy whose kids sell up his house and send him off to a retirement village, much against his will. He discovers they're all on prescribed medical marijuana, so he gets into the game and decides to form a cooperative and sell the medical marijuana on the street in amongst all the the gangsters - and in that process, he has a very interesting personal journey."
From stories of unlikely friendships, strange true-life events to the heroes of history, the Jewish International Film Festival makes its sparkling return to Australian cinemas and runs from the 23rd of February until the 3rd of April. Delving into what makes this festival so special, what Eddie really appreciates is "the gathering with film and storytelling at its heart, and just seeing that all unveil and the discovery and people taking risks in the program and seeing stuff that isn't generally their thing."
"Plus, we have an amazing range of live performances, which I guess pushes us into a bit of a general Jewish arts festival. We have a great line-up of stand-up comedians and live music and we have script readings of new films that are in development."
If that is not an invitation to check out what's on offer, I don't know what is.
For the full line-up of this year's Jewish International Film Festival or to purchase tickets, head to www.jiff.com.au.