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Jane Enkin

JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: THUMBS UP FOR MY AUSTRALIA-HOW A POLISH JEW TRAINED TO STEAL RAISED AS A CATHOLIC ADJUSTS TO KIBBUTZ LIFE

Jane Enkin , May 12 2012,

 
My Australia is a film I can strongly recommend on many counts. It's enjoyable for its fascinating story and superb acting. I'm grateful to have seen this film with friends – we took the time to discuss it, maybe even argue a bit, and uncover more and more of the themes and ideas within this work.
 
It's wonderful to see thought-provoking films as part of a festival. Audiences reflect on overlapping ideas in the documentaries and dramas, and take the time to talk and compare notes. Many thanks to the donors, professionals and volunteers of the Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival who provide this opportunity.
 
My Australia begins in 1960's Poland. A ten-year old boy, Tadek, accompanies his teen brother, Andre,    on what seems to him like an adventure and a chance to prove himself, as a member of a gang heading out to beat up kids at a Jewish school. The boys are caught by the police and released to their mother.
 
Slowly secrets are revealed. The mother has been “passing”, raising her children as Catholics, and leaving them to raise themselves as independent, thieving thugs. But she is Jewish, and she decides, perhaps out of fear and perhaps out of self-respect, to take the boys away from Poland. Tadek, convinced that they are immigrating to Australia, is shocked to find himself instead on a boat to Israel.
 
I took a moment, as the film-makers did, to feel the emotions of the emigrants on the boat as they have their first glimpse of the land of Israel. But Tadek and Andre don't see themselves as Jews. Andre says, “When I found out, I felt like I had tuberculosis...”
 
Within the serious plot, My Australia included lots of laughs. Learning that an uncle is Jewish, a startled Tadek asks “How did it happen to him?” I enjoyed the incongruity later, as “becoming Jewish” happens to (a post-newborn) character, with black-hats in peyes and surgical masks calling out, “Mazel Tov!” in the operating room.  
 
At the beginning, I was concerned that although Tadek is cute and earnest, I really didn't like him. He is a cheat and a sneak thief, rising instantly to violence. But he is the central character of the film and becomes appealing as he learns and grows.
 
He undergoes an overwhelming number of challenges to his sense of self. A Polish, devoutly Catholic member of a single-parent family, trained to fight, steal and lie as necessary, is asked to adjust to kibbutz life, “passing” among communal, non-religious Jews. Tadek starts out chameleon-like, eager to be like whoever is around him. When his mother asks him, “You went to beat up Jews?”, Tadek smiles sweetly, clearly expecting approval for being like the big boys around him. On the kibbutz, Tadek quickly learns Hebrew and also learns new values and priorities. But by the middle of the film Tadek, instead of simply blending in, is working consciously in an extraordinary way to construct an identity of his own. There are resonances here of Israel itself as a place with a consciously constructed, still-developing identity.
 
There were mixed reactions among my friends to the character of Tadek's mother, who struggles with so many negative feelings and demands that her children be both self-reliant and obedient. Like many of the characters in this film, she keeps secrets and tells lies for emotional survival, and it's clear that lies have been essential to physical survival as well.
 
All the adults in this film are nurturing. The mother is, to her limited capacity, and the officials, religious, health care and educational professionals, kibbutz “parents” and even the police all offer gentle care.
 
This allows the film-makers to focus on complex relationships among children. As a friend pointed out, Andre loses his centre when he no longer has the main responsibility for caring for his little brother. When I heard that Tadek was headed to a kibbutz, my first thought was, “The kids in the children's house will eat him alive!” Sure enough, the kibbutz magnifies the combined politics and rivalry of classroom and family.
 
I'm not sure how much someone would miss who had no background in the history involved in the film. Although I don't feel I know enough about the facts and causes of post-war antisemitism in Europe, I have some understanding of Israeli and kibbutz life in the 1960's. There are also many barely articulated references to deep losses and pain, for which I could fill in the blanks.
 
The visual symbolism in the film often expresses what is left unsaid. Poland is the old country, shot in golden light, a barren urban environment. The bright white light of Israel shines on the beach in Tel Aviv, then on the lush green of the kibbutz. When the teenager has learned (along with the audience) that the family is Jewish, Tadek, still innocent of the knowledge, comes to church wearing a T-shirt with a bright yellow patch. When the mother speaks the single word “Ghetto”, we view an Israeli factory as a high wall topped with barbed wire.
 
My Australia deals in a thoughtful, tender way with loyalty and affection, and in a challenging and satisfying way with open-ended questions of identity and survival.
 
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