Interview: Judy Ironside
The woman behind the UK's biggest celebration of Jewish film is planning a few innovations this year
"We can't let our programme be too sad or dark, or too frivolous," says Judy Ironside
Judy Ironside spends so of her much time in darkened rooms watching films, that she likes to be outside whenever she can, which is why we are sitting in a blustery Clerkenwell courtyard on what is quite a chilly October afternoon.
Ironside, the founder and executive director of the UK Jewish Film Festival, is enjoying the breeze. She says she loves the seasons, both weather-wise and because, when you organise a festival of this kind, like the seasons, every part of the year is different.
We are now only a couple of weeks away from the start of the festival and it is, as you might imagine, one of Ironside's busiest times - once it all gets under way she will be travelling from venue to venue, clocking up as many as four or five screenings in a weekend.
Apart from the fact that, as a self-confessed "drama queen", she loves the meeting and greeting, and making introductions to the movies, it all provides her with vital feedback about who is in the audience and how they are reacting to the programme that Ironside and her team have spent the previous year organising.
The Names of Love, a comedy from France
"You can listen to an audience," she says. "You get a great sense of how they are appreciating a performance. With comedy, you can see whether they are laughing or, if it's a drama, whether they seem to be touched by a film. That all informs the process."
Much of that process involves Ironside and her colleagues watching films. Although her team conducts a considerable amount of research on what is showing at the major film festivals around the world, they also have to plough through the 350 films that are submitted every year. Ironside herself watches about 150 of them and her "programming group" of around 10 film buffs shares the load. She has a daily commute of around three hours from her home in Brighton to the festival's HQ in London - ideal viewing time.
So which films does she tend to reject? She is tact itself. "Well, I don't want to discourage film-makers from sending in their films, but I would say that, when a film-maker is soul searching –- using their film almost as a type of therapy - that's when we have to question whether it will appeal to an audience, although some films of this kind can be very entertaining.
"There is also the question of balance. We always get a lot of films on the subject of the Holocaust and, of course, we take the best of those, but we can't let the programme be too sad or dark or, come to that, too frivolous."
Having myself attended a couple of screenings a few years ago where the audience was, let's say, on the venerable side, I ask Ironside how she goes about bringing in that elusive younger film-goer.
"About two years ago, we began to think that, while we had a wonderful core audience, we actually knew a lot of them. We wanted to keep the 10,000 we already had but also reach out to the younger crowd. One of the things they were telling us was that they like the social aspects - parties after films, comedy, that kind of thing. We've tried very hard to provide that. I don't feel we're standing still. We've come a long way since we started as a small festival in Brighton in 1997 and we're still moving now."
An innovation which Ironside is particularly excited about is the decision to venture beyond festival core areas. "This year we are showing first ever Israeli horror film, Rabies, at the Coronet, in Notting Hill. It's very much with an eye to bringing in new audiences. We could have tucked it away in north London but we have made a decision not to do that. It will also be shown in Peckham which is another new audience, we hope."
Of the 70 films on the programme, over 50 per cent are from Israel. Ironside is not worried about providing too much of a good thing. "Our criteria for the festival are that each film should have a Jewish theme or be Israeli. Having said that, a lot of the Israeli films have Jewish content, too. The Israeli film industry is really strong and that's why we have so many of their films. When we first started, some of the films were quite unsophisticated. Now the industry is world-class. If the day comes when Israelis stop making such good films, you won't see so many at our festival."
Despite the high proportion of Israeli movies, the festival has yet to encounter the kind of anti-Zionist disturbances that have plagued other cultural events. "I like to think it's because we're not political," says Ironside.
"We try to represent the situation as it is, without taking a political stand. We've never had any problems. We always invite films that show both sides of the issue and we try to be constructive. After virtually any film that is at all contentious we will have a discussion to give people a chance to air their opinions. I always hope that it's a dialogue of concern rather than mud-slinging."
Such has been her success that Ironside has been asked to supply her expertise to those attempting to get other Jewish film festivals up and running, including those at Geneva and Zagreb. She keeps in touch with all of her international colleagues and they all get together for a summit meeting at the Berlin Film Festival to talk about the latest new releases.
There is always pressure to come up with a suitable movie for the opening night gala - something mainstream with mass, as well as Jewish, appeal. Ironside says she is very happy with this year's premiere, This Must Be The Place, starring Sean Penn. "He gives an inspiring performance in the most amazing role - the content is thoroughly Jewish, quirky and amusing. It will be much talked about and remembered."
As well as the normal selection of dramas and documentaries, this year's festival features a screening of three episodes of the Israeli version of The Office, followed by a stand-up routine from comedian Bennett Arron. And, as this is the lead-up to Olympic year, what better excuse to show the rousing classic, Chariots of Fire, followed by a question-and-answer session with director Hugh Hudson?
Ironside is hoping that the festival will continue its upward curve. There are a couple more films than last year and she hopes a few more people will attend. Long term, her aims are simple. "I hope we will continue to bring in a more and more diverse audience. As long as we keep growing and looking outwards and not inwards, I'll be happy."
The UK Jewish Film Festival begins on November 1. Details at www.jewishfilm.org