Life & Culture

Jewish film: Welcome to the mainstream...

For the most part, film-makers, writers, artists and other creatives who recognise their Jewishness as an essential part of their work, are regarded as marginal


‘Well, I try to keep the Jewish stuff completely separate from my day-to-day work.” So said the mover and shaker at one of London’s most successful TV production companies and board stalwart of a local United synagogue to me as we sat facing each other in a stylish Soho café.

I found myself in familiar territory with another high-flying media professional, active in the Jewish community but who maintains, as far as possible, a barrier between her Jewish and professional lives.

As chief executive of UK Jewish Film, one of the principal cultural organisations in the Jewish community, I find it frustrating that, in multicultural Britain, where creative arts are in the vanguard of embracing and celebrating diversity, many still consider it advisable to leave their Jewish selves at home. For the most part, film-makers, writers, artists and other creatives who recognise their Jewishness as an essential part of their work, are regarded as marginal unless or until their work receives the wider recognition and approval of the cultural establishment.

I believe we are missing a fantastic opportunity and that we should be looking to do the very opposite by celebrating our creative achievements.

We cannot complain among ourselves that commissioners, publishers and other gatekeepers to the British cultural establishment shun ‘‘Jewish’’ material as uncommercial, parochial or too hot to handle when we don’t wholeheartedly encourage, support and endorse it ourselves.

As a community, we could provide so much more in the way of spaces, opportunities, encouragement and support to nurture and develop the incredible talent that is among us. If we can proudly champion our own culture and creativity, then British mainstream culture will be more inclined to do so too.

UK Jewish Film is one organisation determined to nurture and support that creative talent. The festival and our year-round screenings form a unique opportunity to celebrate and explore contemporary Jewish and Israeli stories through film. We are determined and proud to bring that amazing creativity to the widest possible range of UK audiences. This year, that means screening more than 80 films at 11 cinemas across London, including at the BFI and Barbican, as well as four other major cities. That confidence in celebrating Jewish culture is infectious and has had a profound impact over the years in bringing Jewish cinema and culture into the British mainstream.

Last year, in the wake of the Tricycle furore , it was fascinating to see UK Jewish Film Festival as the subject of lengthy debates on the BBC, in newspapers and opinion columns of arts and political magazines. Commentators recognised what some in the Jewish community hadn’t — that Jewish film is now considered an essential part of the British cinema mainstream; a part of our national culture that should not be silenced, without which we would all be far poorer.

Against that backdrop, it is heartening to discover that there is also an emerging new wave of home-grown creative talent no longer afraid to explore Jewish life and stories. UK Jewish Film is determined to provide them the space to share their work with a wider audience.

Over the past few months, I have seen some incredibly promising new films, which we have selected for the festival. Among those are actor and now first-time director David Leon’s Orthodox, a raw and edgy film about a struggling kosher butcher by day who is also a street boxer by night. Young scriptwriter Jez Freedman, who tragically passed away earlier this year, takes a far softer and more humorous approach in Dough, a nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek tale of a kosher baker in the East End.

Equally fascinating are the two new short films that UK Jewish Film has commissioned this year, which tackle unexpected and intriguing Jewish stories.

The first is The Guitar, a magnificently nuanced tale of a chance meeting between a young Charedi boy from Gateshead and a wayward teenage girl from Newcastle — lives rarely if ever depicted on film. And The Chop, a delightful cross-cultural comedy about a Jewish butcher who gets a job in his local Halal shop. Both films, funded by the Pears Short Film Fund at UKJF, will receive their world premieres at the Festival.

This new wave of Jewish cinematic creativity is reflected in British television too as Jewish creatives move from their traditional roles behind the camera to put themselves in front of it, or at least through their script-writing.

And even if the results are not always subtle or sophisticated it marks a step change in the depiction of Jewish life on the small screen — from Robert Popper’s suburban Jewish comedy Friday Night Dinner and Simon Amstell and Dan Swimer’s Grandma’s House, to the toe-curling Two Jews on a Cruise and Simon Schama’s rather more grand and eloquent The Story of the Jews.

Those of us who have the privilege of running the community’s leading cultural organisations have a chance to guide and support all this activity. That’s why nurturing new talent is one of my priorities so we can foster an environment to proudly celebrate these stories.

This year, for instance, we will have the Best Debut Feature Award, which acknowledges first-time directorial talent. Our jury members include internationally acclaimed film director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Harry Potter star Jason Isaacs and producers Nik Powell (The Crying Game) and Michael Kuhn (Suite Française).

Another element of our platform for new talent is a new FilmLab programme, which is aimed at providing that missing support that our creatives need in the early stages of their professional development.

FilmLab events at the festival include a live script-reading of a new feature film, Sidney Turtlebaum, based on a short film that UKJF commissioned in 2008 and which was shortlisted for the Oscars Best Live Action Short Film 2009.

We will also have master classes from producers Simon Chinn (Searching for Sugar Man) and Graham Broadbent (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).

FilmLab will continue that nurturing role throughout the year with regular workshops and networking events to provide our creative talent with the safe environment and professional advice that they need at a key stage in their development.

It’s my hope that this support for our new wave of Jewish creatives will be echoed across the community and beyond, and provide an inspiration to all of us to break down the barriers within ourselves and celebrate and share our Jewishness in all its forms.

With our support, the movers and shakers of the British film and TV industries, Jewish and non-Jewish, will gain the confidence and enthusiasm to champion outstanding work that reflects the wealth of Jewish stories in this country and abroad.

This year’s festival provides a space to help achieve that — packed with extraordinary, inspiring and moving films from around the world, with fascinating film guests, panel discussions and speakers from the UK and further afield, it demonstrates to all the vibrancy and resilience of Jewish culture.

As filmmakers, writers and artists prove time and time again, the ancient and little-understood customs and cadences of our own small community so often turn out to be the abundant source of an extraordinary inspiration and creativity.

Let’s celebrate, nurture and enjoy them together.

UK Jewish Film Festival runs from November 7-22 at cinemas in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds and Nottingham.

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