A new BBC series shines a light on Britain’s Jews. Director Vanessa Engle talks to our television critic
There cannot be many more surreal moments in documentary history than the scene in Vanessa Engle’s new film The Prisoner, in which a reformed Chasidic drug-dealer wants to demonstrate how easy it is to swallow a condom packed with grade-A substances. With no cocaine-filled package to hand, he uses the next best thing — a pickled cucumber, which he dispatches in one gulp with the help of a sip of water.
The film is one of three in a series simply entitled Jews, which provides three snapshots of different aspects of British Jewry. Although the films appear to be on predictable subjects — the Charedi community, the consequences of the Holocaust and the work of a wealthy Jewish philanthropist — Engle is adamant that the themes are anything but clichés.
For example, she was interested in exploring the strictly Orthodox community, but a simple portrait of the community is not Engle’s style — she needed a new angle. It was provided by a short piece she saw in the JC two years ago about a drug dealer, Samuel Leibowitz, who was raised in the Satmar community.
“There was a tiny story about Samuel’s court case,” says Engle. “It simply said that he had been given a shorter prison sentence because the rabbis from the community attended the trial and said that they would help to rehabilitate him and find him accommodation. I wrote to him in prison, he phoned me over a long period of time and we established a working relationship. I was there with a camera on the day he was released.”
Leibowitz gave Engle a way into the Chasidic community. “I was really interested in doing something about this community. It is growing fast and, like any closed community, it is fascinating. Anyone who has ever driven up the A10 through Stamford Hill is always instantly attracted by those people. Drug-traffickers are very unusual, of course. So how does the community deal with a case like his? Is continuing to turn your back on the world a viable way for a community to function? The story of Samuel asks that in a particular way. I think it’s a very positive depiction of the community.”
The second film in the series is on a Holocaust-related issue, but not one which Engle — the award-winning maker of four previous BBC documentary series — thinks has ever been tackled before.
“I am a secular Jew and the middle-aged child of a refugee. I have thought about what that means all my life. So I wanted to make a film about the psychological inheritance of the next generation. It’s not a historical film about the Holocaust. There have been many excellent films on that subject, and I didn’t want to do that again.
“I was interested in the fact that there are men and women like me, some younger than me, all of whom are just one generation away from the Holocaust. Jews are often criticised for insisting on talking about the experience, and the suggestion is they do so to own the political and moral high ground. But I think the reason Jews talk about it is because it is in their bloodstream — it happened to their parents. It’s not an easy documentary to sell, because it’s so nebulous — it’s not like Samuel’s story in that way. What it is saying is that there is all this psychic disturbance around even now.”
The film illustrates this disturbance by interviewing children of survivors and refugees, all of whose lives have been affected, sometimes in profound ways, by their parents’ experiences. In two cases, these children grew up without even realising they were Jewish because their refugee parents had sought to protect them from what they perceived as a dangerous identity.
The final film, Keeping the Faith, marries two themes which interested Engle while she was researching the series — the decline of the observant population and the subject of Jewish philanthropy. “I was surprised to discover quite how tiny the Jewish community actually was. It became a party trick of mine to ask non-Jews I met how many Jews they thought lived in this country. They would typically say anything from two to five million. Actually, there are just 270,000. I was also interested in Jewish philanthropy. There is a lot of wealth around but also a big obligation to give a lot of money away. People don’t realise this and it challenges stereotypes.”
Engle came across millionaire fashion entrepreneur Jonathan Faith, who brought the two themes together. He is a major philanthropist who found religion and who is now attempting to reverse the decline of the Jewish population.
She rejects criticism that making a film about a Jewish millionaire is a cliché. “I must insist that none of these films are clichéd. As a journalist, when I take a big subject I have to tackle it head on. I could have made a film about Jews and horse-riding, but I don’t know what that would say — probably not very much.”
Engle, whose last series, Lefties, won a top award at the Chicago International Film Festival, says that her intention in making the three films was to look at the subject “through three different keyholes”.
“If you take the films in isolation, I hope you will think they are good films, but hopefully by coming at a subject more kaleidoscopically from three different angles you get something which is more than the sum of its parts.”
The title for the series, Jews, while nominally obvious and in keeping with Engle’s liking for a one-word name, was given a lot of thought. “It’s a very literal title and it does what is says on the tin,” she says. “The one thing all the films have in common is the fact that they were about Jews. It’s not definitive, which is why it’s not called ‘The Jews’ — I come at things in a local and specific way, but hopefully the films do shed some light on the bigger picture. But more than that, to use this word in this ways has a bit of a charge to it. I used it deliberately because I wanted people to examine their own attitudes to the word.”
The subject of the films may be diverse, but they all share one strong feature — Engle’s singular approach to film-making. Her voice is prominent in all the interviews, and she likes the fact that all her films have a sense of humour. “I’ve been doing films this way for many years. They are awkward films. Partly because I have a track record of doing that, this is what I’m asked to do. I include my voice because I want to take responsibility for the fact that it was me who made the film — it wasn’t some invisible, God-like entity.”
Engle feels her work is “organic”, by which she means she takes a subject and runs with it without any certain knowledge of where it could end up. With Samuel, she says, she had a hunch that he would make a great documentary but had no idea whether he might re-offend after one day, thereby killing the film stone-dead. However, although she takes risks, she has never abandoned a film. “I’ve always delivered, that’s why the BBC keep commissioning my work — they have confidence in me because I’ve been around the block a few times.”
Even when she has her material on film, Engle still does not know what the result will look like. After all, in editing, she has to cut 200 hours of footage to just 60 minutes. “You have no idea what is going to stay and what is going to go. It’s a bit like sculpting from a huge tree. You don’t know whether you are going to end up with a dog, a deer or perhaps only a tiny mouse.”
The first part of Jews will be screened on BBC Four on June 18 at 9pm
A TV critic's view
Vanessa Engle’s Jews was never intended to tell us who we are. Rather, it is an affectionate and moving look at three separate Jewish stories, starting from the particular and working outwards.
The first in the series, The Prisoner — the story of the Satmar Chasid drug-dealer Samuel Leibowitz and his attempts to reform himself after a spell in prison — is beautifully observed, funny and sad in equal measure. Samuel is an anachronism in the Chasidic world, but the community’s efforts to rehabilitate him are surprisingly affecting. Engle clearly feels great affection for her subject and her direct style of questioning makes for memorable viewing.
The Next Generation is more personal for her — in it she portrays the children of survivors and refugees, people like herself. The film, consisting of interviews interspersed with archive footage, is moody and atmospheric and ultimately poignant — very different from the The Prisoner, yet still displaying Engle’s eye for an interesting story.
The final film, Keeping The Faith, is the story of Jonathan Faith, a clothes entrepreneur and philanthropist whose mission is to halt the decline in religious observance in the community.
It may lack the humour or the poignancy of the previous two films, but it does tackle arguably British Jewry’s most pressing issue — its dwindling population — in a fresh and accessible way.
The series sets out to provide three snapshots of Anglo-Jewry. In its cheeky, slightly subversive way, it succeeds triumphantly.