Why are we so awful at putting ourselves on the big screen?

Portrayal on film ‘brings out the worst in film-makers’, say critics

By Simon Round, June 7, 2012
The grandmother of ethnic advertising, Maureen Lipman’s ceaseless search for an ‘ology’ has yet to be surpassed in the famous BT ads

The grandmother of ethnic advertising, Maureen Lipman’s ceaseless search for an ‘ology’ has yet to be surpassed in the famous BT ads

If you feel like watching a feature film by a British Jewish film-maker there is plenty of choice — you could watch one of the many movies made by Mike Leigh, John Schlesinger, Michael Winner or several other directors of note. But should you wish to see films featuring British Jewish characters or with a Jewish theme, there is considerably less choice. And with a couple of honourable exceptions, those few movies which have been released in recent years have been excoriated by the critics.

This is a view held by many in the Jewish community, but is it an erroneous perception? Not according to Judy Ironside, the founder and executive director of UK Jewish Film. Her team is constantly on the lookout for British films with a Jewish theme to showcase at the annual festival.

But pickings, she says, are very thin. “We are sent nearly 400 films every year for consideration from all around the world. Probably about two per cent of those are from the UK. We struggle to find films that fit the festival’s remit. It’s much easier to find films about Jews in the US. And to give a European example, the French are much stronger. They are making art-house films with Jewish themes, there are Jewish romcoms and there are characters in lots of French films who just happen to be Jewish. For some reason, we are reluctant to make films portraying our own people.”

And when films are made, particularly when they are comedies, the critics have noticed a striking disconnect between the depiction of Jews on-screen and the experience of Jews living in the UK. The JC’s film reviewer, Jonathan Foreman, can rarely recall seeing a well-made British-Jewish film. And he reserves special scorn for David Baddiel’s 2010 effort, The Infidel, in which Omid Djalili plays a Muslim who discovers that he was born Jewish. “It was hideous. If British Jewish films are like that, then thank goodness there aren’t more of them made. Making Jewish films seems to bring out the very worst in film-makers. Even people who are very good at other things, when they do something Jewish, they make your skin crawl, particularly in the field of comedy. They tend to be self-caricaturing. It’s certainly different in America and in Europe.”

So why do Jews cringe when they see themselves depicted on the big screen at their local multiplex? One of the key factors, according to Nathan Abrams, senior lecturer in film studies at Bangor University and author of The New Jew in Film: exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema, is accent.

“This is one of the biggest problems. It took me a long time to work this out but it doesn’t matter if someone was born in 1900 or 2000, if they are Jewish they all sound the same in movies.

Because Jews are physically hard to distinguish from the rest of the white population, directors feel they need to code them. So they emphasise the Jewishness of their characters and in so doing end up with cliché.”
This stereotype of a north London Jew will be familiar to the British Jewish film-goer. Leon the Pig Farmer, Suzy Gold and The Infidel all feature the north London Jewish accent, which seems to exist only on-screen, along with an imagined vernacular (a catering van in Leon The Pig Farmer carries the slogan “To you, we deliver”).

At the root of this stereotype, says Dr Abrams, is a community which is uncomfortable with letting it all hang out. He says: “The timidity of the British Jewish film industry is reflective of British Jews in general. They have always been advised to keep their heads down. There is a twofold factor here. In order to keep your heads down you don’t want to have too many Jews on-screen.

“So when you do have them you need to be really obvious and clichéd about it. There is also a commercial consideration. Because the community is so small, we can’t sustain a purely Jewish product. Therefore, film executives tone down the Jewishness. You get this Catch 22 situation in that there are very few Jewish characters in movies, so when you have them they need to be signposted – and you end up with characters sounding like Maureen Lipman in the BT adverts”.

The same has happened on television, with an interesting variation. In 2011, Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner received praise from the critics. As its name implies, this was a comedy set in a Jewish household on Shabbat. However, due to a lack of confidence on the part of either the producers, those who commissioned the show or perhaps both, nearly all the Jewish content was removed — to the point that there was discussion on a Channel 4 forum as to whether the programme even depicted Jews.

Dr Abrams comments: “They tried to play it both ways by making it Jewish enough that people who knew about Friday night would get it but then they removed any other signifiers so that it wouldn’t put off the general public, so it was a classic English fudge”.”

This is in marked contrast to Larry David’s cult US show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which liberally throws in Jewish references, while retaining its mainstream audience.

There are of course, exceptions. Simon Amstell’s comedy, Grandma’s House, which returned for a second series last month, is edgier and more authentic than most. And in the 1970s, Jack Rosenthal wrote plays such as The Barmitzvah Boy and The Evacuees which addressed both universal and Jewish themes and were loved by Jews and non-Jews alike.

In other media, such as books and theatre there is more, and some would say better, material. Mr Foreman thinks it significant that Mike Leigh chose to make a Jewish play, Two Thousand Years, rather than a Jewish movie.

“I can’t think of a specifically Jewish character in a Mike Leigh film, but he chose to write this play. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the risk of taking on a Jewish subject is less in the theatre because plays don’t cost as much to put on as films do.”

So what is the problem? Mr Foreman thinks that it lies within ourselves. “There are a huge number of Jews in the media, and they have no shortage of self-confidence. But they don’t want to do things about being Jewish because it’s not seen as particularly cool. They may associate being Jewish with being middle-class so they want to do stuff about inner city youth instead. If you look at the subsidised film sector in particular, there’s a huge amount about tower blocks and unemployment. Our community is going to seem suburban and boring in comparison. Either film-makers don’t see their identity as that important or maybe it’s that very British thing that they are slightly uncomfortable about it.”

Mr Foreman feels that representation of Jews is better in historical drama but even there stereotypes can creep in. “In Chariots of Fire, the Jewish character, Harold Abrahams, was stiff-necked, a bit chippy and hypersensitive to antisemitism.

“Meanwhile in An Education, you had the first negative depiction of a Jew in a number of years. It used to be the case that you couldn’t do that, but here was a director who clearly had no problem with a classic antisemitic stereotype.”

Dr Abrams believes we will not start making interesting material until we shake off institutional inertia. “British Jewry, or at least the metropolitan elite, needs to take a good look at itself and do something to support the cultural creativity of the younger generation. Generally, in this country, as soon as someone does something that is both Jewish and interesting they go off to Hollywood or move into the non-Jewish world where there’s more of an outlet.”

Mr Foreman thinks that our lack of objectivity about ourselves might hold us back. “It might be that only an American or a European could make a good film about Jewish life in Britain. Most British Jews would both lack a perspective and be too conflicted about it.”

Last updated: 3:31pm, June 7 2012