The directors putting UK Jews on the big screen
They struggle for cash and audiences, but a new generation of film-makers is committed to making movies about Jewish life in Britain
The Honeymoon Suite
It was earlier this year, on his own wedding day, that film director Sam Leifer came up with an idea for his next project. In keeping with tradition, straight after the ceremony he and his new wife went to the yichud room for their first secluded moment together as man and wife.
“After 10 years together, it seemed slightly unnatural to be in that situation,” says Leifer. “It was almost a question of, what do we talk about?”
It was, perhaps, not the most appropriate time, but Leifer started wondering what the experience would be like if the couple did not know each other, if this genuinely was their first time alone. And so, The Honeymoon Suite, a 10-minute take on “the clumsy start” of an Orthodox arranged marriage, was born.
Written by actress and playwright Alexis Zegerman, directed by Sam and produced by his brother Teddy, it won this year’s Pears Foundation Short Film Fund award.
For the Hampstead-born Leifer brothers — Sam is 30, Teddy 27 — it was a follow-up project to their 2006 comedy, The 10th Man. The short, currently enjoying a revival on YouTube, is about elderly East End Jews and an 11th-hour search for a Kol Nidre minyan, and stars Andrew Sachs and Stephen Berkoff.
Sam Leifer is one of a number of emerging Jewish film-makers looking at their own community for inspiration. Another is Lucy Kaye, who began making films just a few years ago. An anthropologist who spent several years working with traveller communities, at 32 she went back to school — to the National Film and Television School. She found herself living in Whitechapel, erstwhile stamping ground of her grandfather and his eastern European immigrant family.
Naturally inquisitive, she set about trying to find people who had known him. “In the process I met these wonderful characters,” she says of the elderly Jewish residents she encountered.
Keen to preserve their memories, she started recording interviews. The result was the wistful documentary, Together Alone. “The culture, which is very different to north London Jewry, is disappearing rapidly. I wanted to get across this sense of their world changing and how they were coping,” she says.
Now working on a film about rehabilitating teenagers who have been excluded from school, Kaye dreams of filming more members of the Whitechapel community “before they disappear”. But she admits it is unlikely she will get the chance — such a project is just “not particularly commercially viable. It’s very hard to get funding for something like that”.
By chance, a commissioning editor for Channel4’s First Cuts, a series giving aspiring film-makers a foot in the door, spotted Together Alone and Kaye secured backing for her current film. Yet schemes like that, or the Pears Foundation fund, which provides grants to young directors making films with Jewish content, are few and far between.
The situation is not helped by the government’s arts funding cuts, including the axing of the UK Film Council. But as actor-turned-documentary-maker Dan Landau says, surviving in the film industry has always been an uphill struggle.
The 38-year-old director estimates 90 per cent of his work involves Jewish content, from a serious exploration of Israeli communities affected by Operation Cast Lead to a humorous tale of one bureka-maker’s mission to spread spirituality via his pastry. But for him, his passion for film-making remains a sideline; he also runs a merchandising business. “You need that alternative,” he sighs. “It’s very difficult to make a living in film. I really admire people who do this full time but most are struggling.”
He talks of making his films “super guerilla” style, with pocket-money budgets of just £2,000. Or, as Teddy Leifer puts it: “For a short film, you have to beg, borrow and steal. “The crew gets just enough to cover expenses — everyone from the director to the runners.”
He and his brother mostly work in the relatively more profitable world of television. The shorts they make on Jewish subjects are always a labour of love. “We do it because we want to tell a story,” he says.
Telling the story is not enough, of course. The film-makers also talk about the buzz of seeing the finished product. As Landau explains: “You slog away for two months on a film, you want people to enjoy it.” He has hopes of one day filming a documentary series on Golders Green life.
Yet not only do films about bureka-makers or religious Jews rarely attract big money, they can struggle to find an audience. There are Jewish venues; screenings at community centres, film festivals, but where else do you look for a “Jewish film” audience?
Sam Leifer acknowledges the point. Something like The Honeymoon Suite is undeniably “niche”, he says, “but I don’t think a larger audience wouldn’t understand the story. It’s about two people trying to connect — that will appeal to any community.”
Likewise, Kaye, who followed Together Alone with a study of a disturbed homeless ex-soldier, hopes her work could have a wide appeal and engage viewers with “people you’d ordinarily walk past.”
“It’s the same with the old Jewish community in the East End. The themes — love, loss, community — are relevant to everybody,” she says.
Sam Leifer, who recently directed series three of the BBC show How Not to Live your Life — a sitcom with a “neurotic Jewish soul” as its main character — draws a contrast with the situation across the Atlantic. He says that while America has angst-kings such as Woody Allen and Larry David, that type of Jewish humour “is not such an English thing.
“There is not as rich a tradition of British Jewish comedy and writing,” he says, noting that they had to look to Paris for the female lead for The Honeymoon Suite. “There’s not really the same pool in acting Jewish as in America.” he notes.
But he thinks that is changing, and his brother agrees. “There are lots of fantastic people out there,” says Teddy Leifer. And as he points out, everything else — funding worries, audience appeal — is secondary. “If there was a dearth of talent,” he says, “it would be far worse.”
The UK Jewish Film Festival presents an evening of shorts by emerging British film-makers on Sunday November 14. Details at www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk or call 020 3176 0048