‘I always felt like an outsider, my films reflect that’

Filmmaker Paul Frankl's search for a community is reflected in his films, he tells Stephen Applebaum


Short films don’t often get shown in cinemas outside of festivals but 20 film-makers were looking forward to the prospect of theirs doing just that under the umbrella of The Uncertain Kingdom.

Launched in December 2018, the project gave the selected film-makers £10,000 each to create works conveying their perspectives on the UK in 2019. It was a bold and ambitious idea that would showcase emerging and more established voices, with the aim of sparking discussions about where we are as a nation, who we are, and where we’re going.

What no one saw coming was the Covid-19 pandemic, and the closure of cinemas as part of a nationwide lockdown. “I know there are much more important things going on right now,” tweeted the Jewish writer-director Paul Frankl, on what should have been the day of the London premiere of his contribution, The Life Tree, “but I’m not gonna lie, I’m still devastated.”

It’s now late May and the day after Frankl took his first bike ride, close to his flat in Stepney Green, since the start of the lockdown. Finally, his intriguing new short is going to be seen by the public, as The Uncertain Kingdom is being released across various VOD platforms including BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema and iTunes.

“It was really sad,” he says, recalling by phone how close they came to opening the collection of films on the big screen. “All 20 film-makers had put in so much work . . . It was really exciting that they were going to be shown in cinemas nationwide, because it’s not something that normally happens with shorts.”

We are, perhaps, getting a glimpse of the future. As we’re feeling our way towards whatever the so-called new normal turns out to be, streaming is perforce becoming the way a lot of people are consuming films, which may force the British film industry to overcome what Frankl sees as its reticence to accept that people’s viewing habits are changing. “I do love cinema,” he says, “and I would miss it if cinemas never opened again. But I think it will force the industry to go that way a bit more.”

Now 32, Frankl has been making short films since leaving his classical music studies as a flautist behind (“I found the environment stifling”) and gaining a first-class degree in comparative literature and film studies from Queen Mary, University of London. He discovered during his course that he had a knack for screenwriting.

His subsequent shorts include Water Song, an award-winning tale of a deaf competitive swimmer’s loss of innocence; the acclaimed Roxanne, in which a transgender sex worker befriends a girl abandoned by her mother; a breezy project for Vice Films about gender and identity called Dungeons & Drag Queens; Gold Star, wherein a liberal Jewish teenager seeks solace in Orthodox Judaism (more of which later); and his most ambitious project yet, the climate-change-themed fantasy drama, The Life Tree.

“My main motivation for making films,” he explains, “is the desire to show people, who may be judged or ignored or stereotyped, with humanity and heart, and hopefully with kindness, and hopefully help people watching to connect with those people better or understand them better.”

Frankl knows what it is like to feel different. Raised in a Reform Jewish family in North London, he was a “feminine kid”, he says, whose accepting parents allowed him to dress as he pleased. “My mum always tells me that when I was about four, I wanted to wear these red shoes to school,” he laughs. But while he felt safe at home he wasn’t “masculine enough” for some children and was bullied so much for “being girly”, that he had to move schools. “I then grew my hair long and, until I was about 13, was made fun of for that at secondary school, until I cut it off. So I think I was always aware of how I was a bit different and felt like a bit of an outsider.”

This extends, to some extent, to his relationship with Judaism. He attended Jewish summer camps and toured Israel. Today, he still celebrates Passover and Rosh Hashanah with his family, but has felt slightly disconnected from the Jewish community. “When I discovered the gay community, that was a whole, like, other thing. That opened up a new world. So, I guess I have always been looking for a community that I might fit into and I think that search is definitely something that makes its way into the films.”

It is there in Gold Star, which Frankl has made available on Vimeo following its festival run, and its pregnant 18-year-old protagonist Joanna’s journey towards Orthodox Judaism. This is the opposite direction of travel most usually seen in dramas — Netflix’s Unorthodox for example. One of his cousins decided in sixth form to become ultra-Orthodox and had an arranged marriage. (“She ended up getting divorced because the guy she married wasn’t very nice and she’s no longer religious.”) An old school friend also became Orthodox, he says, and, “she loves it. She finds a lot of community in it.”

Is this the appeal? “I guess. Even with Reform Judaism — my mum says this — and, like, a funeral, you know how to act, you know what to say, you know what to do. It gives you a structure of how to support people, and everyone comes together in times of crisis. So, I think it can be a really nice thing to have that community around you. Although I guess if you don’t fit in, it can be oppressive.”

By contrast, the Bolivian protagonist of The Life Tree is alone with a sick son in London, and practically invisible to the office workers she cleans up after. In a magical realist twist, she finds a cure for her offspring, but will its effects last? The film touches on many themes, including climate change, something he’d long considered writing about until The Uncertain Kingdom gave him a focus.

His empathy with migrants comes partly from knowing that if his grandparents “hadn’t been allowed into the UK, they all would have died for their religion, along with the rest of their families, and I wouldn’t be alive.” Their stories were “always very present” in his childhood.

His maternal grandparents arrived here in the 1930s, although his grandfather almost didn’t make it after being arrested during Kristallnacht and transported to the German/Polish border to be sent to Poland. “Eventually, he was given a fake visa by a man called Captain Foley to come to the UK, saving his and his brothers’ lives.”

“My mum describes always feeling different at school,” says Frankl. “The family tried to assimilate as quickly as possible into British culture, and my grandparents never spoke German to their children or with each other. It was only when I was studying German at school that they started to speak it again.”

Frankl’s grandfather had lost his parents in a concentration camp and a Polish ghetto, but didn’t open up about them or his experiences until he was in his 80s. In the same year as Frankl’s barmitzvah, he gave his daughter letters he’d received from his mother, “sent from the ghetto and written in Yiddish.” The originals are now in Yad Vashem.

His paternal grandfather moved here from the Czech Republic in 1938, to set up a new home while arranging visas for his wife and children.

“My grandmother followed him in 1939, escaping on the last train from Prague, the day before war broke out.” Tragically, her parents died in camps, along with “over 100 of their relatives who died in the Holocaust.”

Ironically though , due to Brexit he is now applying for German citizenship on the basis of his grandparents’ persecution,

“I feel being part of the European Union is very important.”

In an uncertain kingdom in uncertain times, this is, perhaps, a different way of taking back control.

‘The Life Tree’ features in ‘The Uncertain Kingdom’ — released on demand June 1 ‘Gold Star’ is available to watch on Vimeo.

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