So where are all the UK’s kosher movies?

Only three British films are being screened at the year’s major Jewish festival.


By Nick Johnstone, November 13, 2008
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2004’s Suzie Gold (top) is a rare example of a UK Jewish-themed feature film. Movies are still being made, but they tend to be cheaper shorts like Sidney Turtlebaum, starring Derek Jacobi (right) and Rupert Evans

2004’s Suzie Gold (top) is a rare example of a UK Jewish-themed feature film. Movies are still being made, but they tend to be cheaper shorts like Sidney Turtlebaum, starring Derek Jacobi (right) and Rupert Evans

Mention contemporary British-Jewish film and most people think of Paul Weiland's 2006 barmitzvah tale, Sixty Six, or Ric Cantor's 2004 Bridget Jones-esque Suzie Gold. Although both were produced in an era of cinema when community-specific films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham were connecting with mainstream international audiences, neither, when released, attained the same level of success.

"Sixty Six was a small British film about a Jewish family," says Paul Weiland, reflecting today. "Its universal story was never intended just to appeal to a Jewish audience but in hindsight that's what happened. The Jewish community flocked to see it both in the UK and the US. It seemed that the non-Jewish audience didn't have the appetite for the subject matter - a barmitzvah was just something they didn't fancy attending."

The same fate met Suzie Gold and since then, British producers have been reluctant to put money behind Jewish-themed films. "The reviews for Sixty Six were incredibly positive," continues Weiland. "But in the end there weren't enough non-Jewish bums on seats."

The shared commercial fate of Suzie Gold and Sixty Six goes some way to explaining why of the 49 movies being screened at this year's UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) only three are British. The paucity of home-grown films is even more glaring when set against the deluge of submissions from not just Israel, the United States and France, but also Canada, Australia, Spain, Argentina, Austria and Hungary.

"There are not that many films with Jewish themes being made in the UK," admits Judy Ironside, founder and director of the UKJFF. "But we have had some strong films such as [the 2003 cricket-based comedy-drama] Wondrous Oblivion in the past."

Leading the charge at this year's festival is Tristram Shapeero's short film, Sidney Turtlebaum, which stars Sir Derek Jacobi as an eightysomething Jewish homosexual pickpocket/conman, targeting victims at shivahs in the North-West London Jewish heartland.

"Sidney Turtlebaum is an authentic British-Jewish film," says co-producer Daniel Jewel. "It is set and shot on location in present-day Golders Green. Our writer, Raphael Smith, is Jewish and very much drew influence from Jewish short stories and cautionary tales."

Also screening are Jane Chablani's compelling 2007 documentary Stealing Klimt (premiered last year by the BBC as part of Alan Yentob's Imagine series) about Maria Altmann's battle to recover five Klimt paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis, and poet Leah Thorn's eight-minute short My Amulet, which offers an intimate autobiographical portrait of Jewish life in Gant's Hill, North-East London, in the '60s and '70s.

Both Sidney Turtlebaum and My Amulet were financed by The Pears Foundation UKJFFF Short Film Fund 2008 - without it, they would not exist. "The fund provided us with the majority of the money to make the film," says Jewel. "Then, when we managed to cast Derek Jacobi and attract Tristram Shapeero to direct, we decided to raise additional money from private sources to raise our production values to match our creative team, and the UKJFF also made further funds available to us."

The fund creates a niche for short films that would otherwise be dismissed as too marginal. "The fund gives away two awards of £10,000 each year to try to stimulate UK film-making with Jewish themes," explains Ironside. "We have now financed five short films and the new fund for 2009 is just launching."

Leah Thorn certainly could not have made My Amulet without help from the fund. "Last year," says Thorn. "I was given grants by the Arts Council and the European Association for Jewish Culture to write a performance piece, kin'a'hora, exploring my take on English Ashkenazi identity. A fragment of this poetry forms the text of My Amulet. The money to develop and shoot the film came from the Pears Foundation."
This means that only Stealing Klimt, an independently financed feature, was made without backing from the UKJFF. "I financed it personally," says producer Tim Schwarz who also conceived the film. "The BBC bought the film after it had been made."

For Schwarz, making the film had nothing to do with turning a profit. "The story closely mirrors my own family's history of escaping from Vienna in 1938," he says. "I've spent 17 years recovering family property in Austria and the Czech Republic that had been looted by the Nazis. I stumbled on the Maria Altmann story while trying to gain restitution of a painting that was looted from my own grandparents in 1938."

All three films have their value, but they only serve to highlight the fact that no feature-length film about British Jews has been made in the UK since Sixty Six back in 2006. So what is causing the drought? A lack of talent, or audiences, or financial support? Or perhaps a combination of all three.

Some observers point out that at around 250,000 members, the size of the Jewish community in Britain, is not big enough to sustain a constant flow of films as in Israel, the US and France. There are also proportionately fewer Jewish filmmakers out there, and smaller Jewish audiences, making British-Jewish cinema a less commercial proposition for British producers.

"I think we probably have fewer Jewish filmmakers," says Ironside. "Although we have some very talented people in the UK. Also, maybe particularly in the US, Jewish films appeal to non-Jews as well as to the large Jewish communities there. And many of the French films we have submitted to the UKJFF are quirky and focus on French-Jewish characters who appear to have a universal appeal."

Raphael Smith, screenwriter of Sidney Turtlebaum, thinks that British reserve plays a part. "British-Jewish life is fragmented and to some extent, much more muted than say, the New York Jewish experience," he says. "As a result, it's sometimes very hard to depict the nuances of that experience on the screen without falling into bagels and overprotective mother shorthand. That said, films either work or they do not work. The state of British-Jewish cinema is simply a reflection of the talent that's out there."

Paul Weiland believes reviewers were too quick to label Sixty Six as a Jewish film, causing non-Jewish audiences to stay away. "Sixty Six took $2m in the UK alone," he points out. "Most of that in North London, so there is definitely a market for this kind of film but they have to be made for a budget that allows producers to see a return."

Despite this seemingly bleak picture, the UKJFF short film fund is helping spark change. Thanks to their sponsorship, Daniel Green is now seeking financing to adapt Sidney Turtlebaum into that rare thing - a feature-length British-Jewish film. "We don't expect Sidney Turtlebaum to make us all rich; our motivation was to make a quality piece of cinema", he says. "We have had a lot of interest in developing a feature-length film and Derek Jacobi is keen to be involved - so there may well be more to come."

The UK Jewish Film Festival runs in London until November 20. www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk

    Last updated: 5:25pm, November 13 2008

    COMMENTS

    stuarturban

    Wed, 11/26/2008 - 18:03

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    My film "Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead", is a feature documentary about my father who survived both Holocaust and Gulag, and was nominated for a British Indpendent Film Award and also shortlisted for the UK's top cinema documentary prize, The Grierson Award. The JC gave critical and editorial support and it was nominated at the recent UK Jewish Cultural Awards. It was released in UK cinemas this year.

    See www.tovarisch.net