This year's UK Jewish Film Festival is set to be the biggest yet. Now in its 12th year, the festival, which started life as the Brighton Jewish Film Festival back in 1996 before relocating to London and rebranding itself as the UK Jewish Film Festival in 2004, will this year feature 47 films, offer 66 screenings at 12 venues, and boast no fewer than 32 films making their UK premiere. The festival, which showcases throughout London in November, will go on tour across the UK deep into 2009. This year's programme is an eclectic mix of features, documentaries and short films. The task of whittling down a shortlist of 300 films to the final cut of 47 fell to Judy Ironside, festival director, and Gali Gold, artistic director, backed up by three programme consultants.
"When we put together a programme," explains Gali Gold, 38, an Israeli based in London, "we always bear in mind that there is a real diverse audience out there. We don't cater to our own personal taste. We use our expertise, obviously, but we are trying to reach out to the diversity which is out there."
The selection process involves extensive research, long afternoons locked up in dark screening rooms and a lot of discussion.
"We get approximately 300 submissions," continues Gold. "Many of them are films that we order and some are submitted by filmmakers and film agents from around the world. The majority are documentaries."
This year, the festival features an even greater number than usual of Israeli films, an indication of the present Israeli cinema boom.
"The proliferation of Israeli cinema is stressed in our programme. Over 30 per cent of our programme is films from Israel. And we are not making any compromise with quality. There is a trend toward looking back and reflecting on war with films like Waltz With Bashir, the most talked-about film to come out of Israel recently, and the documentary To See If I'm Smiling. There are also issues of identity prominent in The Seven Days, Arab Labour and Ashkenaz. We also have several films like The Lemon Tree, Strangers and To See If I'm Smiling, dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Eran Riklis's The Lemon Tree, a compelling film about a Palestinian widow living on the Green Line border between Israel and the West Bank, fighting to save her lemon grove from destruction after her new Israeli-defence-minister neighbour deems them a security risk, is the festival's opening-night gala film. What made Ironside and Gold single this Israeli film out for such prestigious billing?
Gold says: "The Lemon Tree had a great success with audiences at the Berlin International Film festival (where it scooped the Audience award), and on account of its themes and its quality, we think it deserves the high profile. Interestingly, it has done better in Europe than it has in Israel in terms of audience turnout. Yet at the same time, Waltz With Bashir is doing extremely well in Israel. This means we have to stay in touch with what's out there as much as possible. We are aware of reviews, awards, festivals, general audience reception, and we take all these things into consideration when programming."
Gold is well placed to have her finger on the pulse of the latest trends in Jewish cinema. Born in Jerusalem in 1970, she got her first break programming the Jerusalem Cinematheque's second Gay & Lesbian film festival. Thereafter, she taught film at Sapir College and produced a documentary festival in Tel Aviv, before moving to London in 2002 to study for a PhD in Israeli documentary film. Unsurprisingly with such a background, this year's eclectic programme sees films themed to Muslim-Jewish relations, gay and lesbian issues, Sephardic/Ashkenazi life, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In short, something for everyone.
"When talking about identity politics, you're always walking on eggshells," she says. "And creating a Jewish film festival is similar in that sense. You always have to keep on asking yourself, why is it in there, what is the justification? And when making a programme, I'm very aware that we're not just going to highlight the European or Eastern European diaspora. When you look at our programme and see films like Baghdad Twist or The Seven Days or Ashkenaz and Stumbling Stone, we're responding to the diversity out there."
She highlights Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's The Seven Days as the highlight of Sephardic themed films.
"The Seven Days is a very specific story, a quite claustrophobic internal family affair, about a family of Moroccan origin. It's part of a trend in Israeli cinema, of stories focusing on the lives of oriental Jews."
Gold sees the festival as duty-bound to programme films which represent Jewish life as extensively as possible.
"It is our mandate to bring in and represent Jewish diversity - be it sexual, ethnic, national. We have to stay topical, relevant."
With variety in mind, why such a poor representation of British-made films? This year, only three are screening, two of which are short films.
"We want them to be out there, but there wasn't much variety of choice for us. Compared to say, France, there just isn't enough being made in this country which is relevant to Jewish themes. Every year, we receive interesting Jewish-themed feature films from France. But not from here, other than the odd lucky year, with a film like Sixty Six."
Thinking big, the festival debuts this year with the red-carpet West End Gala premiere of a movie tipped for success.
"Last year we showed The Band's Visit and this year, it's Fugitive Pieces. It is a very high-production film adaptation of Anne Michaels's much-loved book, and the storyline is so ingrained in Jewish experience that it made a rather obvious choice."
As the festival gets ever larger, does Gold pay any attention to critics who dismiss the need for a stand-alone Jewish film festival in the UK?
"So many of the films we're showing wouldn't be shown otherwise. We believe these films are all of interest and deserve the public stage that we give them. We are creating an event which brings people together. Not just a Jewish community. This is not an exclusive type of event. We are trying to create the environment of a public communal experience."
The UK Jewish Film Festival, sponsored by the JC, is on at various London venues from 8-20 November. See www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk for further details