Two new and diverse Australian films
JIFF Short Film Fund

Two new and diverse Australian films

'Art is so often made with so few resources, and we're extremely grateful to have the support of JIFF to bring our ideas to life'

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

Documentary Mahjong and Mahashas and narrative short Stones have been announced as the 2023 JIFF Short Film Fund winners. First presented in 2017, the fund provides money to Australian filmmakers for the completion of a Jewish-themed short film.

Mahjong and Mahashas, from Sydney-based filmmaker Carolyn Saul, gives viewers a cultural window into part of Sydney’s Sephardic Jewish community. Industry judges Mike Selwyn and Dr Mitzi Goldman said the film is “a really interesting story which opens a window on a different line of recent Jewish history”.

Saul told The AJN it was her curious mind and passion for culture and social history that led her to become a filmmaker.

“The researcher in me and the passion for education has meant that I’ve gravitated more towards the documentary genre of filmmaking,” she explained.

Saul’s family originate in Singapore, Asia and Iraq and she said growing up, the language she spoke at home and the food her family cooked was different. Knowing she had a different background combined with her fascination about culture led Saul to do an interview with her grandmother.

“I wanted to capture a bit about her life story because she was born in Iraq and went to Singapore, and she represented a very Old-World Jewish woman. And then that led me to do other interviews with other elders in the community over the years and get their stories. I’ve always been documenting things. I felt a need to do it,” Saul recalled, saying ultimately, she wants to shine a light on “the joyfulness” of Sephardi culture.

Carolyn Saul

Explaining that she was genuinely surprised to find out she was one of two winners, Saul said she is thrilled that the fund is supporting a documentary project.

“I’m just so happy that this is a story that the judges found interesting and that they want it committed to film,” she said. “It really is increasingly difficult to finance one-off documentary films in this country, for many reasons, not the least of which is, in my view, the saturation of reality TV programs. So, I am very excited and grateful that this story has been funded.”

Narrative short Stones looks at the realities and universal language of grief, whether it is old or new. Co-written and co-directed by Chris Bennett and Stephanie Osztreicher, Stones was born out of a shared experience of loss. The premise of the film points to the Jewish tradition of leaving stones on a grave.

“Just over a year ago I sadly lost my aunty to cancer. It was one of the most extreme experiences of grief I’ve had,” Osztreicher said. “Reconnecting with traditions I grew up with from Jewish culture have helped me feel connected to her because it was something we shared. The tradition of leaving stones on a grave can mean different things to different people, I have found mixed history on its origins, but it offers a framework to remember.

Stephanie Osztreicher

“There is comfort and community in tradition while at the same time being something deeply personal. When I started writing the film, I discovered I could say my goodbye through it and use this tradition to frame it. The main character in the film is not me but she is going through something very similar.”

Bennett said the pair were stunned to hear they were winners, saying they are excited to get to work.

“We hope that the audience comes away from the film with a greater appreciation that the pathways out of grief can be varied, and that underneath our lives is this interconnected web of people we have touched in our journey. That when we struggle we’re not alone, even though it might feel that way,” he said.

“Art is so often made with so few resources, and we’re extremely grateful to have the support of JIFF to bring our ideas to life.”

If you’d like to connect with Carolyn regarding Mahjong and Mahashas, email [email protected]

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