Shoshana: ‘It’s not even-handed when it comes to depicting Jewish victims of violence’

Michael Winterbottom discusses his new film which tells the true story of a romance between a British police officer and a socialist Zionist writer in Mandatory Palestine


Irina Starshenbau as Shoshana Borochov with Douglas Booth as Thomas Wilkin (Photo: Jon Rushton Film Publicity & Consultancy)

The opening scenes in Shoshana, the latest film by the prolific director Michael Winterbottom, provide a potted history of pre-Israel Palestine before the Second World War.

The movie, which is released this week, has been gestating ever since 2008 when Winterbottom was at the Jerusalem Film Festival showing his movie A Mighty Heart.

“They gave me a prize for it and showed a few other films of mine, which meant I was there for longer than you are normally at a film festival,” he says. “So I read a book a called One Palestine Complete by the Israeli historian Tom Segev about this bit of British colonial history which I didn’t know much about.”

The resulting film is named after the real life Shoshana Borochov, daughter of Ber Borochov one of the early founders of Marxist Zionism. Through Shoshana and her relationship with British military policeman Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth) the film dares to excavate the complexity of Jewish politics in British Mandate Palestine during the 1930s.

For much of it Shoshana, who is played with watchful intensity by the Russian-Jewish actress Irina Starshenbaum, works as a journalist in Tel Aviv. She is also a member of Haganah, by far the most popular and moderate of the Zionist groups among the Jewish population. This not only puts her in conflict with the British and, inevitably her lover Wilkin, but with the more violent followers of Avraham Stern (Aury Alby) of the Irgun movement. Shoshana hates them for being opposed to her father’s idyll of an Israel where Arabs and Jews live peacefully together.

The plot, written by Winterbottom, Laurence Coriat (McMafia) and Paul Viragh (Sex &Drugs & Rock & Roll) follows the British clamp down on dissent, whether it be Arab or Jewish. It is a policy personified by the film’s third real life central character Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling) another British military policeman who having ruthlessly overseen the brutal suppression of Arab unrest in Jenin is sent to Tel Aviv to do the same with the Jews. For Morton there is no difference between Haganah and Irgun, an approach which Wilkin sees as ignorant and destructive.

The film was shot on the Italian coast where some towns bear a resemblance to the “new” Tel Aviv of the 1930s. You get a sense of a pioneering society motivated by idealism. Also explored is the spectrum of Jewish opinion in the land of nascent Israel.

Winterbottom deserves credit for conveying complexity on a subject where fervently held opinion much prefers simplicity. Yet today’s beleaguered defenders of Israel may still view elements of the film with weary recognition of an anti-Israel stance.

It could be said for instance that the potted history in the film’s opening sequence which uses archive newsreel of white, European Jews settling in Palestine bolsters the anti-Israel notion of the Jewish state as a colonialist enterprise. Certainly it does nothing to reflect the huge proportion of modern Israel’s population that originates in the Middle East and Africa.

“For centuries Palestine was a quiet backwater...with a tiny Jewish community,” narrates Shoshana before explaining that following the first conference in 1897 of the World Zionist Organisation in Switzerland “thousands of people set out from Europe determined to build Israel.”

Perhaps the phrase “thousands of Jews” was considered too inflammatory by the scriptwriters. More to the point a cursory Wiki search shows that the Jewish population in 1890 was 43,000, about 9 per cent of the total. It is difficult to imagine a minority of those proportions being described as “tiny” in any other context.

Winterbottom’s career is nothing if not eclectic. He is as well known for his Steve Coogan vehicles with films such as A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People and the Philip Green-inspired Greed as he is for controversial forays into real life. His biopic A Mighty Heart (2007) about the Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl was criticised for diminishing antisemitism as the motive behind Pearl’s murder by Islamists.

The hugely emotive documentary Eleven Days In May (2022) narrated by Kate Winslet focuses on the deaths of Palestinian children in Gaza killed by the Israeli bombing. It too was criticised, this time for giving no space to the Israeli perspective and because co-director Mohammed Sawwaf reportedly had links to Hamas.

“It’s not about being even handed,” says Winterbottom when we meet online ahead of Shoshana’s release. “[Film] is not like current affairs or news,” he continues. “It seems to me it is legitimate to make a film about about the families of children in Gaza just as it is to make a film about Shoshana Borochov in Tel Aviv. Some people have said ‘Why are there no Palestinians in Shoshana?’ But this is a story about Tom Wilkin and Shoshana Borochov in Tel Aviv. The idea we should include Palestinians is bizarre.”

Except Palestinians are included. They are seen most graphically as the victims of Jewish Irgun terrorism, with limbs blown off by bombs, writhing in agony. Towards the end of the film the bombing of the King David Hotel also figures. By contrast the massacre of “more than 60 Jews” in Hebron by Arabs in 1929 is skated over. Described as “horrible” it is not depicted in any detail except for some grainy newsreel of coffins.

So you might argue that a purportedly neutral film “about political violence” as Winterbottom describes his latest movie, should at least be even-handed when it comes to depicting victims of violence.

I wonder therefore if Winterbottom, who signed an Artists for Palestine open letter in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack, would be surprised if anyone viewing his work about the Middle East would conclude that the world would be better off without Israel.

“That would be completely perverse,” he objects. “I’m not sure Shoshana is about conflict between Israel and Palestine or Jewish people and Arabs. It is about Britain. It’s about a love story between a British colonial police officer and a Jewish woman in Tel Aviv.”

This much is true. The film captures the pioneering energy of Tel Aviv in the 1930s. It also provides a rare portrait of Jewish activism before Shoshana’s Haganah fights the British by teaming up with the force she “always hated”, the Stern group.

“Film should not give messages or answers,” maintains Winterbottom. “They should make you engage with the world and ask questions. The situation in Shoshana is complex. You have the British as a colonial power, you have different views within the Jewish community about how to achieve what they want to achieve. And I know already that different people take radically different messages from it depending on their own point of view.”

Still, the closing image of Shoshana firing a machine gun at Arabs seems particularly well suited to the anti-Israel view.

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