Sunday, January 15, 2012

NYJFF ’12: My Australia

While not the worst of times, the 1960’s were a difficult period for Polish Jewry. Conditions would eventually reach intolerable levels during the Communist Party’s anti-Semitic purges in 1968. For one mother, more than her livelihood is at stake in 1960 Łódź. Concern for her sons’ moral compasses necessitates a dramatic move in Ami Drozd’s My Australia (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival.

It is important to note that the Poland of today is not reflective of the Communist Party’s values. Poles are represented more than any other nationality among the names of the righteous. Post-Communism, the Polish government and leading cultural institutions have taken an active role preserving the nation’s Jewish heritage. Danny Gold and Matthew Asner’s excellent documentary 100 Voices, which also screens during the 2012 NYJFF, addresses this phenomenon directly. Unfortunately, Halina does not live in such times.

A Holocaust survivor, she has chosen to raise her two sons, teenaged Andrzej and the bratty Tadek, as Catholics unaware of their family history. She comes to rue this decision when they fall in with a gang a violent anti-Semites. Talking their way out of prison, she decides to avail herself of the only advantage Jewish Poles had under Communism. It was the only Soviet bloc country that allowed free immigration to Israel. For expediency’s sake, Tadek is told they are going to Australia, a place the young boy considers a utopia with kangaroos (hence the counterintuitive title of the Israeli-Polish co-production).

Obviously, Andrzej and Tadek are in for a rude awakening, which the younger boy handles particularly churlishly. Indeed, the former thugs soon come to understand what it is like to be cultural outsiders and religious minorities. The boys’ secret otherness manifests itself in numerous ways, but Australia focuses on the circumcision issue. Frankly, the film’s preoccupation with the young boy’s junk borders on the outright icky.

Essentially presented from Tadek’s POV, Drozd maintains Halina’s secrets, without making the young boy a clueless blockhead. Nor does the writer-director overplay the shoe’s-on-the-other-foot moral of his tale. However, his two featured principled are not particularly engaging screen presences. At least he earns points for honesty, showing all their acting out and petty resentments. A quality period production, Australia also nicely captures the look and spirit of the golden age of the kibbutz movement, in all its coed communal bathing glory.

For those who missed it during its spotty theatrical go-round, 100 Voices is highly recommended when it screens twice this Thursday (1/19). Though well intentioned and largely free of sentimentality, Australia never delivers a big payoff and has a few too many unnecessary tighty-whitie scenes. Basically recommended for nostalgic former kibbutzniks, it also screens this Thursday (1/19) as well as this Saturday (1/21) at the Walter Reade Theater, but only standby tickets are available, so good luck.