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'What makes a film Jewish? There are no easy answers...'

The CEO of the UK International Jewish Film Festival spills the beans on this year's festival

    Michael Etherton, Chief Executive of UK Jewish Film
    Michael Etherton, Chief Executive of UK Jewish Film

    "What makes a film Jewish? There are no easy answers. It's obviously not just Jewish ritual and life, but some sort of Jewish sensibility and state of mind. Not everyone will agree with our choices - but it's our job to open the question up to debate and discussion."

    So says Michael Etherton, the man whose job involves some form of that debate every day of the year. As Chief Executive of UK Jewish Film, the organisation that runs the hugely popular UK International Jewish Film Festival every November, as well as many other initiatives, he is constantly thinking about ways of broadening the organisation's remit, to involve new audiences, watching and discussing film in new ways, and also helping new film-makers develop their skills.

    This week, his team, including festival programmer Nir Cohen and head of marketing Katie Gilbert are putting the final touches to the 2016 festival, which marks its 20th anniversary. Kicking off with a gala evening at the British Film Institute on November 5, the festival runs until the 20th, and will feature more than 80 films from all around the world, shown at cinemas in north, east, south and central London, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow and Leeds. Last year's festival attracted 15,000 visitors, and this year's is confidently expected to top that.

    One might expect the man in the top job to have been a film buff from an early age. But Etherton says music was his first love, playing the cello from the age of six. He grew up in Stanmore, and went to Haberdashers', part of a family which was involved in Edgware Reform Synagogue. His mother, Jean was national president of B'nai B'rith. He won a music scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, but decided to take his undergraduate degree in law, "to make my parents happy," he says, with a smile. Law is clearly a family talent; his first cousin Sir Terence Etherton was recently appointed Master of the Rolls.

    But Michael Etherton decided to drop his legal career and return to music, training as a conductor in London and then at the Rubin Academy in Israel. He arrived in Israel without a word of Hebrew - "Most of the music students there spoke only Russian or Hebrew, so I had to learn fast", lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and came to love Israel.

    Michael Etherton's top 10 Jewish films

    1. A Serious Man
    Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, USA
    2. Solomon & Gaenor
    Dir Paul Morrison, UK
    3. Footnote
    Dir. Joseph Cedar, Israel
    4. Live and Become
    Dir. Radu Mihaileanu, France/Israel
    5. The Flat
    Dir. Arnon Goldfinger, Israel
    6. Son of Saul
    Dir. Laszlo Nemes, Hungary
    7. The Girl on the Train
    Dir. Andre Techine, France
    8. Cupcakes
    Dir. Eytan Fox, Israel
    9. Watermarks
    Dir. Yaron Zilberman, Austria
    10. The Small World of Sammy Lee
    Dir. Ken Hughes, UK

    After three years, he returned to London and worked as a jobbing conductor. He also collaborated with producer Tali Tzemach, bringing Israeli acts to the UK, and worked on musicals at the Edinburgh Fringe. Taking a job at the UK Jewish Film Festival 11 years ago was a natural progression, he says. "There are huge connections between music and film and, for me, the fusing of narrative and music is very exciting".

    Before becoming chief executive in 2015, he did much to extend UKJF's international reach, curating Jewish film festivals in Geneva, Zurich and Montreal. Now his main focus is more home-based, including developing and supporting new film-makers.

    "We thought, it's important to put on festivals but maybe there is something we can more actively do to develop and support film-makers. There is very little film and TV that reflects British Jewish life, and we want to change that."

    This is done in several ways. The FilmLab offers training for a new generation of film-makers. The Pears Short Film Fund at UKJF gives two grants annually of £10,000 to create two ten-minute films, which could be factual, drama or animation.

    The fund has been running for nine years and scored several significant successes. Samuel 613, a winner in 2014, a drama set in Stamford Hill, was nominated for a BAFTA. Sidney Turtlebaum, a 2008 winner starring Sir Derek Jacobi, was short-listed for an Oscar.

    "From a proposal written on a double-sided A4 sheet, 16 films have gone on to bring new creative insights into the Jewish experience," he says.

    "That has an impact way beyond the Jewish community. It's very exciting."

    Another way of nurturing new talent is UKJF's Best Debut Feature award, which looks for the best new talent in Jewish film worldwide. Last year, the prize went to Lázló Nemes, director of harrowing Holocaust drama Son of Saul, picked by judges including film producer Nik Powell, director Mike Newell, and actors Kerry Fox and Jason Isaacs. "It shows that big names in the industry are fascinated by Jewish film," says Etherton. "It's no longer a niche, but part of the mainstream."

    Encouraging people to "learn to make films, and learn to make Jewish films," brings young talent into the industry, he says, and often means younger audiences, too. He is keen to expand audiences in as many ways as he can.

    That means putting on screenings all year round, at JW3 in Hampstead, the Phoenix in East Finchley and cinemas in Didsbury in Manchester, Borehamwood and Glasgow.

    He recognises that people's viewing habits have changed and points to the organisation's growing collection of video on demand.

    "A lot of people can't or won't come to a screening," he says, "and when they do they expect something extra. A social experience, perhaps a talk from the director. We're always thinking of new ideas, something a bit different."

    The biggest films from this year's programme won't be announced until the autumn, but Etherton picks out some early highlights. From Israel there's Mountain, the debut feature from director Yaelle Kayam. Set in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, it stars Shani Klein as an Orthodox woman, neglected by her husband. She develops a fascination with the prostitutes who bring clients to the cemetery, and a hesitant connection with the cemetery's Palestinian caretaker.

    Also from Israel, The 90 Minutes War is a mockumentary, in which the Israeli and Palestinian football teams decide to solve their conflict once and for all, by staging a football match.

    "It's very funny and it also highlights the desperation of the Israeli Palestinian conflict."

    His next pick is The People Versus Fritz Bauer, by Lars Kraume, which tells the story of the man who brought Albert Eichmann to trial in 1950s Germany, "a time when there was still considerable antisemitism, and the new generation had not challenged their parents over the war."

    From France, he singles out The Origin of Violence - "Unusual, brilliant and fascinating' - about a young teacher who takes a group of school children to Buchenwald and sees a photograph resembling his father which changes his life.

    From Argentina, comes the new film by director Daniel Burman, The Tenth Man, set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, about a young Argentinian economist who comes back to his homeland to introduce his fiancée to his father, but finds himself falling for an Orthodox woman.

    "It's a portrait of a Jewish community where many people are poor and working-class, sustained by benevolent Jewish foundations. It's a different world, which feels completely authentic. Through the power of film, we are bringing that world to all kinds of people."

    The festival was bruised by controversy in 2014, before Etherton took over as chief executive, when the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn refused to host the festival because it had accepted funding from the Israeli embassy. Etherton stresses that the festival still accepts the funding, and is completely against censorship. "We are a festival, which is open to the public; we will remain that way. We continue to screen films that show different perspectives, to add to people's understanding in a diverse society."

    He sees the remit of the festival as reaching far beyond the Jewish community. "What's really important is that we are using the medium of film to say something about what Jewish life is like and what Israel is like. It's increasingly important in a world where there are so many tensions and fears about racism and antisemitism."

    Although his job does not leave him much time for watching films during the day - he spends much time fund-raising for the festival, which relies on sponsors and supporters - he spends a lot of time in the evenings and at weekends, catching up on films. He has also worked with several Jewish choirs, as a conductor, and is a member of the New West End synagogue in St Petersburg Place, west London.

    Do he and his partner ever sneak off to the cinema to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster?

    "Well, sometimes," he admits. "We occasionally just want to see the latest Hollywood action movie and it's important to check out what is happening in the rest of the film world. But, really, I prefer independent films."

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