Ten years ago, in August 2002, Roman Polanski was preparing for the Warsaw premiere of his new film The Pianist. Although first seen in May at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Palme d'Or), the Warsaw premiere on Sept. 5, 2002 marked the European launch of a film that went on to receive seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) on Feb. 11, 2003, and three Oscars (Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay) on March 23, 2003.
I was quite distressed about all of this, and on April 5, 2003 (after going to a third screening just to ensure that I had all my facts right), I posted my reasons. If you're interested in the details, you can read my original post online, but here's what upset me the most: "In The Pianist, Poles watch the packing of the Warsaw Ghetto with tears, provide food and weapons to the Jews within the walls, support the Jews who manage to escape, cheer for the Jews who resist, and welcome the return of the Jews who survive…"
Keep in mind that of all this was happening in the second year of the Second Intifada. While "suicide bombers" continued their attacks on Israeli bus stations and shopping malls, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stayed busy investigating the so-called "Jenin Massacre" (in which thousands of Palestinian civilians had supposedly been killed in their homes by rampaging IDF soldiers). The same European newspapers that carried rave reviews of The Pianist were also filled with cartoon images of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon clothed in Nazi regalia.
The Pianist, which ends with "Wladyslaw Szpilman" (Adrien Brody) on stage in a tuxedo, playing the piano for rapturously applauding Poles, seemed to ask such a simple question: Once the Allies had defeated the Nazis, why didn't the Jews just "go home"?
On May 1, 2004, Poland became a full member of the European Union, and since that time I've seen several films that address the tragic complexity of Jewish life in the post-War period For example, two years ago I urged you all to see Rózyczka, written and directed by Jan Kidawa-Blonski. Rózyczka (Little Rose) played in our 2010 Chicago International Film Festival, but unfortunately it has yet to be released on DVD here in the USA.
This year's Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema features an equally fascinating film: My Australia. Set in Lodz in the early '60s, My Australia is about a young boy named "Tadek" (Jakub Wróblewski) who believes he is Catholic. But when Tadek and his teenage brother "Andrzej" (Lukasz Sikora) are arrested for attacking students at a Jewish school, mother "Halina" (Aleksandra Popławska) decides to tell them the truth: she is Jewish, therefore they are Jewish.
Halina has raised Tadek and Andrzej to believe their absent family members all live in Australia, but once she has them safely on a boat and at sea, she reveals their true destination: Israel. Tadek and Andrzej are horrified, but they're stuck, and thus begins the aliyah of a family of new immigrants ("Olim Chadashim") to Eretz Yisrael.
Regular readers know I am often frustrated by films with young narrators. I usually find these characters over-written, and I rarely believe that the children in question could actually be so wise and perceptive. Dramatic arcs collapse when adult filmmakers create precocious children for their own narrative needs.
But Jakub Wróblewski won me over completely as Tadek. He is just old enough to have the "street smarts" on display in My Australia, and just young enough to have the requisite flexibility. Brother Andrzej, by contrast, is unable to adapt to his new circumstances, and normal teen angst quickly turns into destructive rage. Tadek holds the film's center, so we never learn all we'd like to know about Halina, yet Aleksandra Popławska's powerful performance leads us to root for her despite her many flaws.
According to IMDb (the Internet Movie Database), filmmaker Ami Drozd, who both wrote and directed My Australia, was born in Poland in 1953. Although Drozd also co-wrote and co-directed the documentary The Name My Mother Gave Me (about Israeli students who visit Ethiopia) in 2008, this is his first feature film. So it likely has some autobiographical content. But regardless of how he came to his intimate knowledge of Tadek's inner world, My Australia definitely has the ring of truth.
A different take on similar issues can be seen in two recent documentaries by Ronit Kerstner, brought forward in time from the 1960s (when Poland was under Communist control) to the Poland of our current millennium (dominated by the newly revitalized Roman Catholic Church).
Those of us who saw Kerstner's 2011 film Torn at Spertus in June may have wondered why Father Romuald Waszkinel, a Polish Catholic priest, decided to make aliyah after learning that his birth parents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In Torn, his actions seem abrupt, but his rationale becomes much more understandable when we meet Father Waszkinel in Kerstner's 2002 film The Secret: Poland's New Jews.
Kudos to CFIC coordinator Cindy Stern for arranging back-to-back screenings on the same night. The Secret is 52 minutes long, and Torn is 72 minutes long, so I urge you to invest the full 2 hours required to see them both.
This year's CFIC opens on Tuesday, October 23 with a Gala at Shedd Aquarium, and closes Sunday, November 4 at the AMC Northbrook Court. At this point, I've already seen over half of the films on this year's schedule, so I can assure you that wonderful films are coming our way.
My complete guide to this year's CFIC will appear in the October issue of the JUF News. Meanwhile, bookmark the CFIC website (http://ChicagoFestivalOfIsraeliCinema.org) and save those dates!
Photos courtesy of Go2Films. All rights reserved.