Madeleine Gottlieb — who is not at all related to me— describes living in the Sydney Jewish Community as “living in the most beautiful shtetl in the entire world.” It’s a shtetl where everybody knows your name, whether you keep kosher and your dating history — and despite feeling suffocated at times, she appreciates the constant care she knows lies at the heart of the community.
A talented writer and director, Gottlieb, 30, is one of just a handful of Jewish voices in the Australian film industry. We first met through Instagram; she followed my meme account (which I’ll refrain from plugging here), and I followed her back because I’d heard through that Sydney Jewry grapevine about the exciting work she was doing.
As we began exchanging DMs (and became, in her words, internet lovers), I was drawn in and intrigued by a young, unapologetically Jewish woman making waves in the very-not-Jewish Australian film scene. Gottlieb’s short film “You and Me, Before and After” stars Yael Stone (“Orange Is the New Black”) in an ode to Jewish sisterhood: two Jewish sisters getting their first tattoos together and engaging in what Gottlieb describes as “lingual sparring.” More recently, she’s directed the new Aussie show “Latecomers,” a coming-of-age story about two young adults with cerebral palsy.
Gottlieb sat down with me to chat about her projects, what it means to create Jewish stories and who her favorite Haim sister is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can we talk about your short film, “You and Me, Before and After?” It was TIFF-selected and one of the most intensely personal short films I’ve ever seen.
It was the first properly personal thing I’d ever made. It’s about two Jewish sisters who love each other, but it takes them the experience of getting their first tattoos together for them to learn to like each other. It’s just one long conversation, where we get glimpses of their fractious relationship but by the end of it you watch them come together.
What’s it like releasing something like that into the ether? To strangers, but also saying these things to your own sister through film?
It was weird. Mostly it was weird casting my sister and me. I’d never done it before, and then all of a sudden you’re just like, “Oh, I’m gonna get Yael Stone to play myself” and you feel really narcissistic and egotistical.
“Hmm If I had to pick one acclaimed Jewish Australian actress to play me…”
“Of the single one there is, who would I choose?” What’s really bizarre is that I never thought in a million years that people would relate to it, because it’s so specific to my sister and me — the situation, the way we talk to each other. But what I’m learning more and more — through this and through shows like “Ramy” and “I May Destroy You” — is that there’s a universality in specificity, and that’s what I find I’m interested in.
Do you think it’s a Jewish film?
Of course I do. I think that it’s a very Jewish thing to do all of our learning and healing through conversation, which is what “You and Me, Before and After” is.
I think it’s when you have characters who interact the way Jewish people do, who use humor the way we do, especially when it comes to dark subject matter. Also, maybe the way they fight with each other. They hate one another and then two seconds later it’s all “I love you.”
Why do you think there’s a lack of Jewish representation in Australia specifically?
Ideally, we want authenticity, right? But the fact is our industry isn’t big enough to have had our parents see it as a realistic career path and encourage it. I can count on one hand the number of my Jewish friends who have gone into a purely creative industry because our parents are always asking how we’re going to put food on the table. But representation matters. In order for there to be more Australian Jewish stories on our screens, and therefore more career paths within our industry, we need to encourage our young Jewish creatives to take that risk in the first place. There’s a uniquely Australian Jewish story to be told and we need people to tell it. We can’t live in fear of our mothers forever.
On one foot: Can you explain your newest project to us?
I’ve just directed “Latecomers,” which is a new online SBS series [a TV channel partially funded by the Australian government]. It was created by Angus Thompson, Emma Myers and Nina Oyama — Angus and Emma both have cerebral palsy, and Nina is a comedian who used to be Angus’s carer. So it’s about two late-20s virgins with cerebral palsy who meet one night at a bar when their carers hook up, and therefore are thrust into each other’s orbit and forced to confront their own biases around sex, internalized ableism and intimacy. Oh, and it’s really funny.
In the same way that “You and Me, Before and After” was so intensely personal to you, it’s obvious that this is that same type of personal to the creators. How did you handle carrying someone else’s stories?
It was daunting. But I was so grateful that the creators and cast put their trust in me. The writing is so beautiful, and I think as well it sort of dovetailed with a Jewish sensibility — there’s a lot of laughing at your own expense, there’s a lot of lingual sparring. But again, it’s about that universality within the specific. I know what it is — obviously to nowhere near the same extent — to feel not at home in your body. So I think perhaps I helped harness that universal lens.
How do you think your Jewishness affected your approach to the show?
A lot of talking. My rehearsal process isn’t about practicing the scenes as they’re written. It’s about the mishnah of it all — the subtext of the character that doesn’t make it onto the page, but is just as important as the dialogue. We interrogate and investigate these characters and why they are the way they are. I think that’s one great thing I got out of Jewish Studies.
OK, to finish up, I’ve got some rapid fire questions.
I think I’m up for it.
Who is your favorite Jewish character?
She’s not played by a Jew, though.
Kathryn Hahn in “Transparent.” She’s the love of my life.
I’ll allow it. OK, favorite Jewish story?
… “Transparent.” I’ve never felt more seen by a series than I have by that show.
I haven’t seen it.
Oh my God. OH my God.
You have two sisters, right?
I’m scared for what’s about to come.
Who’s your favorite Haim sister?
It’s gotta be Alana, because of “Licorice Pizza.” It was her coming out of the shackles of being a Haim Sister. She’s more than that now.
This question might seem pointed but it’s not. When you encounter someone with the same last name as you, do you feel camaraderie or competitiveness?
Extreme competitiveness. The only reason I agreed to this interview was to find your weaknesses and exploit them. When you started your stupid meme page, everyone kept asking if we’re related. Someone thought I was you.
You could’ve said yes.
Are you going to put in that we’ve been internet lovers for two years?
Obviously. But you should know you’re one of my many internet lovers.
Part of the harem then.
To finish us off, can you tell us what you’re working on next?
I’ve got a couple of projects in the pipeline but nothing I can fully talk about yet.
It’s very impressive when you can’t talk about things.
I mean I could talk about them but I’d get in big trouble (mostly from my mother). I can probably talk about the Hanukkah movie you and I are writing though.
No you can’t.
No I can’t.
You can find Madeleine on Instagram @madeleinezara. You can watch “You and Me, Before and After” on Vimeo Staff Picks. If you’re in Australia, you can watch “Latecomers” and “You and Me, Before and After” on SBS OnDemand. If you’re not in Australia, that sucks for you.