Strangers in a strange land

‘My Australia’ takes viewers from Poland to Haifa.

My Australia (photo credit: Courtesy)
My Australia
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ami Drozd’s semi-autobiographical My Australia is the kind of low-key, carefully observed and well-acted movie that is both moving and fun to watch. It’s an unusual coming-of-age story about a Polish family that moves to Israel in the 1960s and is told with uncommon humor and grace.
While the title might sound confusing at first, it is explained early on. Tadek (Jakub Wroblewski) is a tough city kid who hangs out with his older brother, Andrezj (Lucasz Sikora), and his thuggish friends.
The brothers are sons of a young single mother and spend a lot of time running wild and getting into trouble. When Tadek is alone, however, he spends time playing with a set of paper animals he made that are native to Australia, a country he dreams of visiting.
One day, Tadek and Andrezj get picked up by the cops for beating up some Jewish students, and although their mother, Halina (Aleksandra Poplawska), gets them out of it, she seems distressed in a way they can’t understand. She explains to Andrezj, and he passes the message on to Tadek, that they are Jews. Their absent father was Christian, and their mother got through the war posing as a Polish Catholic. Even after the war ended, she thought it best to continue passing as a gentile. Now, though, as she sees what the street culture has done to her sons, she realizes she has made a mistake.
She tells them they will be moving to Australia. But when they are aboard the ship, she announces to the boys that there will be a “slight” change of plans. You can guess where this is heading, and the boys aren’t very happy to learn they will be living in a country where “people don’t mind admitting they are Jewish,” as Tadek puts it.
Many people who grew up not knowing they were Jewish and found out later in life eventually moved to Israel, but it’s a story that has rarely been told on film, and never from this particular point of view. It’s easy to understand how the mother, who lied to stay alive during the war, continued lying after it ended and could never have anticipated what kind of a bizarre, contradictory life this would lead her sons into. It’s also easy to see how her sons aren’t thrilled to learn they are leaving the only home they have ever known for a country populated by people they feel are inferiors, at best.
There are no easy answers for anyone in the family when they arrive in Israel, but Tadek, being bright and observant, begins learning Hebrew faster than anyone else. Parents of children who’ve grown up Israel will especially enjoy the moments when he corrects his mother’s grammar.
Overwhelmed by the transition and the challenge of earning a living, their mother sends them to live on a kibbutz. It’s difficult for them there, but often in unpredictable ways. Tadek gets to know some of the Holocaust survivors and begins to develop a conscience.
Andrezj is just furious at the world and, predictably, acts out. But although there are conflicts between them, their bond is strong. There is an especially lovely scene where the brothers go down to the beach while the mother talks to someone at the kibbutz.
Sometimes it seems that every second or third movie is a comingof- age drama, but few are as heartfelt as this one. And while any number of coming-of-age movies feature talented non-professional actors, Jakub Wrowbleski gives an unforgettable performance as Tadek. He looks as if he was about 10 when the movie was made, and this is one of the best performances I have seen by a child actor, ever.
His expressive face has the gravity and charm of the young Jean-Pierre Leaud in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. There probably aren’t too many roles for Polish-speaking tweens, but even if Wrowbleski never acts again, he should be seen and remembered for this extraordinary performance.
The entire cast does good work, and it’s obvious why this accomplished and engrossing film won the Audience Award at the 2011 Jerusalem Film Festival.