Bitter Herbs and Honey - is it the only film overview of a section of the Australian Jewish community?
Yes, it's never been done before, so it's a first.
Did your own involvement lead to the making of the film?
Not really. It was Natalie Miller's idea. She said, `Why don't we do a film about the Jews in Carlton?' It came through the Jewish Festival of the Arts and it came to me through that process. Personally, I wasn't particularly interested in Jews in Australia because I'm more of a Zionist. I'm interested in Jewish history in Europe and I'm interested in Israel, not so interested in Australian Jewry. But the project came to me and I did the script. Then I started to interview the people very thoroughly and clarity came about what it actually meant, for the Jews in Carlton, and I fell in love with the film. I fell in love with the people. They don't love me particularly but I love them and I admire them. And I respect and admire what the people in Carlton did, which I didn't know about beforehand.
People were very nostalgic in the way they talked about Carlton but I wasn't interested in that at all; I was interested in what it actually meant in terms of identity, culture and those sorts of issues. They were the issues we pursued in the film.
You have provided an overview history of Jews in Australia by going back to the First Fleet, then the comments about the English Jews who came to Australia in the 19th century and their attitudes.
Yes. If anything came out of my own personal life, it would be that aspect. But I think that, in the way that we made it, the film does give an overall sense of what happened, what happened with the Jews coming to Australia. It also gives an overview and a bit of a feeling of Australian history. I think the reason the film has been very successful and very popular with people who are not Jewish is because everybody can plug into it, not only because of the struggles in the film but because it relates to a particular view of Australian history as well.
What about the contrast between the English Jews and their not wanting to emphasise their Jewishness and the group that came later from Poland to Carlton?
That was the thing that I really found interesting in terms of the contrasts in different ways of being who you are, different versions of identity. Because I'm such a Jewish nationalist myself, I've got my own preferences. So it was interesting to see the way that the Jews who were here earlier were completely disappearing into society. Whether they intermarried or not is not the issue. But it was in terms of their behaviour and in terms of the customs they developed as well as the things that they found interesting and the things they found embarrassing. This was very different from the Jews who came here later. They had a different way of identifying themselves. I thought that was very strong and this is a lesson for all ethnic groups or for all groups, be they Catholic or whatever, about how to conduct themselves in relation to your own identity. This is not to say that you should break government laws or the laws of the country. But, as Sam Lipski says, you've got to find a way of being able to maintain all the things that you are, within the parameters of the culture that you're living in. The Anglo Jews didn't do that.
Have they come back to a more explicit acknowledgment of their Jewish culture in the 20th century?
I don't think so, because a lot of this happened in the 20th century. I think that now they've just been overwhelmed. The Jewish community now is predominantly the Jewish community as it emerged from those people in Carlton, those Eastern European Jews. These Europeans, who came immediately before the war and immediately post-war, are those who set up all the elements which make the Jewish community identifiable. It's a demographic thing. So, the Anglo Jews are a minority. A lot of their children married people from the Euro Jews. But there are still some Anglo Jewish families, and I find them different. They can't maintain themselves in quite the same way as they used to because they're overwhelmed, numerically speaking.
That contrasts with Australian Catholicism. The early Irish Catholics were so assertive of their origins that they have dominated. Any Catholic group that has migrated since, like the Italians or the Maltese, while they're still very distinctive, they haven't overwhelmed that initial Irish thrust, whereas it seems the opposite with the later-coming Jews from Central and Eastern Europe.
Because the Anglo Jews had nothing to offer. They're nice people but they had nothing to offer by way of an intellectual engagement with Judaism, no cultural engagement, nothing. All they could say was, `Well, be a Jew between 9.00 and 10.00 on Saturday morning and on the Yuntif(?) on the Hiolifis(?). I imagine that the Irish Catholics and the Italians have a very definite way of being who they are. Different, but strong. It's there and it to do with being Catholic. This was not the case with the Anglo Jews. They had nothing to offer in that way.
The people interviewed showed great vitality and an engagement with culture. They also draw on long and distinctive traditions of language, music.
Yes, that's what brought me into the film, brought my heart into the film, this incredible engagement. It started five years ago - or a lot longer than that - because for five years I was the co ordinator of Jewish Radio 3ZZZ. That was the first time, really, that I came across the real oldies who are remnants of the Kadima, the Yiddishists. I come from a family where Yiddish was regarded very badly. It was not something that the family, my mother or my father valued. They were Viennese and my dad liked Herr Hochdeutsch and Strauss and Schiller and Goethe. These were the people he'd grown up with and the intellectual tradition he was very interested in.
I didn't know anything properly from my own life, so when I met people like Ben Fermansky and Moishe Eisenbatt and worked with them on a daily basis, I could see more. These were people in their 80s, totally dedicated to Yiddish culture, Yiddish language and the ideas that it generated. Moishe Eisenbatt is still writing books, publishing them himself and editing the Melbourne Chronicle. He was the editor of the Yiddish part of the Jewish News, totally engaged. That's fantastic. I respect it and value it.
There hasn't been a strong Jewish presence in the Australian film industry in terms of themes or stories.
No, not at all. Norman Loves Rose, or whatever that film was called, was so appalling that I repress it. I made a short film which went to the Berlin Film Festival. It was called Eine Famille Baum. It involved three generations of my family, but was dramatised. Aside from that, no-one has done anything on themes to do with Jewish issues. There are a lot of Jews who work in the film industry but they're all marginal in relation to their acknowledgment of Jewish living. They might acknowledge it, but they aren't actually engaged with the notion of what it is. They don't find it interesting.
Some documentaries about artists have been made. There's Rivka Hartmann's The Miniskirted Dynamo.
She's engaged with the mother-daughter experience. She's actually not engaged in any way at all with the notion of being Jewish.
Perhaps that's why Shine made such an impact, although it seemed a middle way between the Anglo Jewish who wanted to be secular and those who came from Poland with a culture, but somehow wanting to be secular.
Yes, it's a Jewish family. But, with the Anglo Jews, it wasn't that they were secular but they didn't get involved in the plurality of what being Jewish is. The Eastern European Jews were secular too, a lot of them; these Europeans, like, a lot of the people from the Kadima, are totally secular, they're Vundis. They're not religious but they're totally identified as Jewish and totally engaged with the history, the traditions, the culture and the language of the Jewish people. But Shine, I haven't seen it yet. I'm happy that it's all about a Jewish family. Then, on the other hand, I think, `oh go and see it, and it will really annoy me'.
Bitter Herbs and Honey is a film of great empathy and great elegance.
I had a person ring me yesterday, not Jewish, a Catholic, and she said to me, `It was just a film of great beauty', and she meant it. There's an elegance about the way it moves. It deals with very complicated notions but in a very refined way. It is elegant in an elliptical way as well.
You are happy with the way that you've crafted the film?
Very. I think it's beautiful. I can speak like this without feeling, `Oh, my God, I'm boasting', because Ori was the editor; Martin did the music and Sarah the production design. Laszlo did the camera work and Deborah co-produced and gave emotional support to the whole film. So I don't feel as if I did an awful lot. I said to Deborah, `But what did the director do? Was the director there?' because, when I think about everybody in terms of craft, I can't fault anyone.
Your film on the Gulf War?
I think there's a lot of anti-Semitism in the world. Sometimes I think that when it's not politically acceptable to say, `I hate Jews', which is actually what people feel, people say things like, `I hate Israelis', and demonise the Israelis. So I set about making a film about the Israelis to show them as people as I did with films about women. How do you make women acceptable for people? You do a different form of representation. And I found that the representation of Israelis was so foul it's unspeakable. So I went to Israel and wanted to do this film about the Gulf War because I found the whole episode very interesting - and my son was there as well.
Initially I was going to do it during the war but, by the time I got there, the war had just finished. I wanted to show the pluralism amongst Israelis and to represent them in that way. It's the Israelis who bear the brunt for the Jewish people, for the anti-Semitism against the Jewish people. Maybe I've been extreme. I don't think so. I could put it in a more delicate way, but the ideas are exactly the same.
What impact did the film have on Australian audiences?
The interesting thing was that it didn't sell to television. SBS said to me, `We love this film. We think it's beautifully directed, beautifully done. But if we show this film, we'll have to show a film about the Iraqis and we'll have to show a film about the Palestinians'. I said, `Well, first of all, okay if you do but, secondly, why can't we have a film about the Israelis, just about the Israelis?' `Oh, no, no, we can't have that.' And I said, `It sounds a bit like some sort of bias here'. They said, `Oh, no, no, we're not biased'. But that was the response that I got. I think it's true that there was bias against it and so it didn't get a television screening. Not that I care particularly, because I don't think television's a fabulous medium for films. It's okay. People get to sit in front of the screen, but I don't know that it makes any difference.
After Bitter Herbs and Honey and the Gulf War how did you come to make such a Catholic film as Pieta?
But everyone says it's very Jewish. I've grown up in a world that's very uncertain, where there's not a lot that you can be certain about. You can be certain of a couple of things and you better keep them in line. But, for the rest, you can't really be certain about anything. Through the course of my work, I have met a number of people who were very certain about everything, about the rhythm of life - they could say, `Next year it will be like this or the year after it will be like that'. They were very certain, very sure, very comfortable.
I was intrigued by the question of what happens if that uncertainty begins to unravel. And it happened in the Catholic domain. Catholicism was very luscious. For the people I knew and that I used as the basis for the story, Catholicism had entered into their lives in a luscious and a very physical way. It was as if you could feel it and you could touch it. Those nuns stirred people's - and my - imagination. You could smell Catholicism, you could feel it, you could touch it. Catholicism had entered into their lives in this way, as well as in the spiritual way. I was interested to see what would happen, how you could reconcile all the elements; then, once you had everything set up and it started to unravel, what would happen?
The original title of the film was Shadowplay?
It was called Shadowplay because everything bounces off everything else. Everything has multiple realities. Pieta was Jan Epstein's title because I'm no good with names. I thought of Shadowplay but we couldn't have it because someone else had used it.
All the sub-themes were interesting, especially what is justice? This is a very Jewish thing, concern about justice. I'd read stories about surrogate babies and they raised issues of justice. I knew that this woman, Mary, the central character, could confront these realities only in issues you couldn't argue about, like babies. And her art student was a surrogate child of her own, her little baby.
And she would protect her even to killing for her?
That's very strong.
It's strong. But - I felt it at the time and I feel it even more strongly now - that if you take away someone's notion that there's justice possible within the culture, and if that is threatened, like this woman's notion of motherhood and of being caring and nurturing, people will do things like that. But it ends where she wants to be caught, she wants to be picked up - although you don't know whether she is or not. If she does get caught and goes to jail, that reaffirms her sense her sense of justice being done, and then she can have some optimism in the world, in the way things are ordered.
What really impresse about Pieta are the monologues. How much came from the performance? How much from the writing? How much from yourself because, from a Catholic point of view, the monologues are very Catholic?
It was all in the writing. I did interviews with people and then I wrote them. The monologues have a strong style and I'm very good at that. I can feel that style, you know, I can feel it. So, when people told me their stories, `Oh, this it was like; we went here, we went there and this is what happened', I thought I can be there and I can do it in that way; they're very poetic and I can do that. I can put myself in that position.
So you could imagine yourself as a Catholic schoolgirl with all that religious heritage and her reaction to the sexual education and repression?
Yes, I could smell it. I could see it. I could feel it. It was very sensual. That's the thing that engaged me. I spend a lot of time asking people about their lives, you know. Everyone thinks I'm a shocking nag, `Oh, God, the Schwartz questions, the Schwartz interrogation', because I'm really quite interested and when I heard about people talking about this part of Catholic life, I found it intriguing.
Did you see it as an authentic religion and spirituality, the way they talked about it?
Yes, I did.
Deep or surface?
I thought it was part of their lives. It was in the way that being Jewish is part of my life. And the beauty of whatever that is, I felt it was absolutely part of their lives, to a point where they could never not be that way. The script editor of Bitter Herbs and Honey is a really good friend of mine, Felicity Collins. She's a Catholic, brought up by the nuns and everything. And she says that, if you've had that sort of a training, it's never going to go. And I felt that about these people, that the Catholicism was part of the structure in their lives; it formed their lives, it formed them, even though they might mouthe different points of view. They might say, `Oh, I'm not a Catholic any more. Who goes to church? It's boring,' or whatever. But whatever the variations are, the structure and the way they formulate meaning in the world is Catholic.
Bob Ellis calls it a country of the mind.
Yes. It's there, it's the map of your mind and the map of your heart. You know what moves you, what's going to get in, what's going to get to you. If I were a Catholic, I'd make sure my kids were going to be Catholic trained in that way.
Pieta touches on all these themes of the good Catholic: sexuality, theology of Christ, confession, Christian art, the nuns and celibacy and idealistic living of life, struggle between men and women and God and asking forgiveness.
You wrote the screenplay with great empathy?
For me, the Catholic church is problematic because it's been very bad for Jews, but with this woman who I like and respect and admire in a particular sort of way, I'd never heard anyone talk about this part of their life in this way, and I could see it. As she talked about it, I could see these things. I was able to follow the walk, I was able to walk with her, so to speak. But I can do that, because if I'm going to be interested in doing something about somebody, I can do it. But it was clear about the Catholic education that this woman had had. And the nuns were an incredible sort of model. I never could understand how anyone could be a nun, but it was clear that they were a fascination and a model of dedication and focus. There is singularity of purpose and focus, which are wonderful things.
Do you know the story of the Rabbis and the Holocaust. There are six rabbis sitting in Auschwitz saying, `None of this can possibly happen. There can't be a God, because none of this would happen if there was a God. There is no God'. They debate this the whole night. When morning comes, they all agree, `There clearly cannot be a God. Buut let's go and do the morning prayers'. Whatever else happens, providing they've got that, there can be optimism and they hope. It's similar with Mary. If she is picked up and she ends up in jail, she can feel that there's justice, feel that there's order, feel hope in life and so it doesn't matter that she's in jail. But, if she were out and around, having a good time, going to restaurants, going to movies, but felt that there was no justice, then there would be no hope, only despair, and she might as well be dead. So that's basically the point. That's really what the film is about.
Yes, another Jewish project: the Jewish mother in film. I was away for about a year and I interviewed a lot of Jewish film-makers who have Jewish mothers in their films: Paul Mazursky, Richard Benjamin, Ernest Lehmann, Paul Bogart, Larry Peerce... In the meantime I did Bitter Herbs and Honey. So I'm going to re-contact and do more interviewing, then come back, write the script for it and do it. An hour and a half running time. We know how to do it and how to budget it: 55 minutes for TV, longer for theatrical release.
Australian content as well as American?
Well, no, because there's nothing in Australian films. But I will look at Israeli films as well as Yiddish films. It is the different approach. While it's more of the same about identity, Israeli films don't present the Jewish mother in the same way as in American films. The Jewish mother stereotype is a product of very specific classical Hollywood cinema, in a very specific time frame. It coincides with the desire of certain groups of Jewish men who want to assimilate and marry non-Jewish girls and give away all that old sort of stuff. It's an Oedipal issue in their identity where they reject the mother, have to get rid of her and distance themselves. In doing that, they're rejecting the culture and that identity. So, if you do the Jewish mother as grotesque and monstrous, then you can distance yourself. The Israelis don't do that with their mothers in film, and they talk about their mothers differently. It's totally different.
Mothers in classic Hollywood films, if the mother's bad - usually the ordinary mother, not the Jewish mother - she's bad in a very different way: she's bad because she's selfish, bad because she's sexual. Whereas the Jewish mother, when she's bad, she's the monster, she's always there, she's too interfering, she's there, she feeds you too much!
Shelley Winters portrayed a lot of these mothers.
Yes, I've interviewed her once already. I wanted her to talk about her own mother who had an opera voice. She has really wonderful memories of her mother in Louisiana, can you believe that, in the South. She and her sister would go walking, shopping and on their way back they'd hear their mother's voice wafting through the lilacs, singing songs, operas and music like that.
The mothers she has portrayed are never truly monstrous, absolutely monstrous. She doesn't see that what she's done is to portray them as monstrous.
But I'm going to speak to the directors' mothers, those that have got mothers still, and get them to have a word about it. So, basically, the film is about identity and male sexuality in America.
Interview: 19th August 1996