Home movies, feature films, newsreels and more make up Jewish Britain on Film, an enthralling new online collection of archive footage, launched next week.
The collection is part of the British Film Institute’s Britain on Film project which brings together an unparalleled range of film and television material from national and regional archives, covering over 100 years. Spanning the breadth of the country and featuring Jewish life from across the religious spectrum, Jewish Britain on Film is a captivating reflection of the community — and of film itself — during the last century.
The launch will be marked on the big screen during the UK International Jewish Film Festival with Mr Emmanuel, a 1944 drama set in Nazi Germany. The collection contains other feature-length dramas, short films, home-movies and documentaries, digitised and mostly free-to-access on the BFI Player website.
Jewish Britain on Film shows everyday lives as well as extraordinary events. Home-movies provide a glimpse into popular culture, seen in details like the San Diego Dance Band playing at the marriage of Miss Rose Carmel and Mr Solly Gerschcowit, at a 1925 East End wedding.
The earliest commercial short films reveal antisemitic stereotypes (seen in A Bad Day for Levinsky, 1909) which make uncomfortable viewing, but remind us of attitudes faced by Jewish communities and demonstrate the presence of Jewish actors and themes in early cinema.
The collection captures social and political developments, with newsreel from the 1930s showing anti-fascist marches around Cable Street. The changing face of historically Jewish areas like London’s East End are explored in documentaries such as The Vanishing Street (1962). The BFI Player also features an interactive map, making it easy to search for films from specific areas; look out for Manchester, Leeds, Ulster and more.
Among the most arresting films are the charity appeals, which show Jewish organisations helping the community’s most vulnerable people, at home and abroad. The Chief Rabbi’s Emergency Council (1947) is a poignant call for aid in the aftermath of the Holocaust, featuring footage of Jews from Eastern Europe, particularly children, who were fed, clothed, educated and re-housed in the UK. Cast Us Not Out (1969) makes a compassionate appeal from the Jewish Welfare Board (now part of Jewish Care), showing us acute poverty affecting the elderly.
Assimilation and identity are explored in sophisticated television documentary Britain’s Jews (1965), including Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs discussing modernity. Here and in the sensitive drama The Barber of Stamford Hill (1962), we see Britain on the cusp of the swinging sixties, with hair styles and attitudes straining at the demands of contemporary culture, and hear accents from a bygone era.
Jewish Britain on Film features on BFI Player alongside other collections celebrating diverse British communities. BFI National Archive Curator Simon McCallum says, “It’s been a privilege to bring together this exploration of the experiences and contributions of Britain’s vibrant Jewish community. This collection uncovers some painful and troubling moments, and documents times of immense change, but is also full of joyous snapshots of Jewish life in all its diversity”.
To access Jewish Britain on Film go to: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/collections
Dr Julia Wagner writes about film, including for the BFI, and currently teaches Film Studies at JW3.