Life & Culture

Putting the British Jewish community on the big screen

Stephen Applebaum meets the people behind two new short films with a local Jewish flavour


Growing up, Barney Pell Scholes’s grandma would tell him about the day in 1947 that rioters attacked his grandpa’s family’s shop in Liverpool. The mob was enraged by reports of the killing of two kidnapped British soldiers in British Mandate Palestine by the Irgun — the so-called Sergeants Affair — and Scholes’s grandfather had to put on his RAF uniform to defend his livelihood against angry men throwing bricks and shouting antisemitic slogans.

This summer Scholes lent his grandfather’s medals to an actor playing him in a dramatised version of the riot, written by Scholes and shot at the Black Country Living Museum. He has high hopes for the short film that he is making with his childhood friend Tom O’Meara. He wants The Soldier of Smithdown Road to keep alive not only the memory of what his relatives did, but also of the threat that Liverpool’s small Jewish community faced, just two years after the liberation of Auschwitz.

Britain, he says, “has a national narrative of itself as, ‘We won the war. We beat the Nazis. We saved everyone.’

“I’m not saying that’s wrong but, in 1947, when this film is set, you also had British soldiers reportedly doing Sieg Heils in the streets in British Mandate Palestine. And you had what was effectively pogroms happening in British cities as a result of the Sergeants Affair. I wanted to get across that these things run very shallowly below the surface, and it doesn’t take much for them to emerge.”

As Scholes and O’Meara shot their film this summer, another group of actors gathered in a house in Highgate to act out a typical Pesach seder. A mother, played by the veteran actress Maria Friedman, quizzed her adult children, asking which one will give her a grandchild so that she can hand on a doll’s house she has inherited from her dead mother.
The film was written by first-time screenwriter Sam Rogg, and directed by her brother Tim, drawing on memories of their childhood seders. They didn’t grow up in a religious family, but Sam says she always looked forward to Passover and remembers everyone “getting distracted from the Haggadah and breaking out into arguments and family debates. That’s such a vivid memory for me with Tim growing up,” she says. “So it made sense to make that the setting.”

As Sam wrote, she realised that the mother’s dilemma shared themes with Passover — survival, legacy, passing things on to the next generation — giving it an added layer. Tim says they wanted the tone of Jewishness in the film to reflect their own experience. So “it’s like the wallpaper in the house. It’s just a part of their [the characters’] lives.”

It’s not easy getting the funding or the expertise to make films, even short ones. These two films are being made thanks to UK Jewish Film’s Pears Short Film Fund, which funds films with a distinct British Jewish flavour every year.

Now under the auspices of composer and filmmaker Benjamin Till, who also runs the organisation’s Short Doc Fund, Pears awards two grants yearly of up to £13,500 to people with stories of British Jewish life that they’re burning to turn into a film. You can be a neophyte filmmaker or a garlanded veteran — everyone is welcome.
“I don’t care if they’ve got an Oscar,” says Till. “But, if they’ve got one and they want to apply, fantastic. Equally, if they’ve never made a film before and they want to apply, that’s also fantastic.”

Being Jewish is not a requirement, and Till has made the application process blind in order not to bring someone’s “baggage”, whether it be their ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender, into the equation, and potentially prejudice the judging.

He says that often when people are asked about their project, they immediately talk about themselves. “So, they might say, ‘I’m a neurodiverse, non-binary, third-generation Holocaust survivor.’” Some funding bodies are “much more interested in the “who” rather than the “what”. However, Till wants to, “let the art speak for itself”. All he asks is that a project “feels like it reflects us”.

There are some caveats: the award is specifically for Anglo-Jewish stories, which rules out tales set in America, Europe or Israel. Till would also rather not see films that seek to garner empathy by talking about “dead Jews, or oppressed Jews, or Jews who are being oppressed by their own community... There’s only a certain amount of pieces about how awful the frum community are that you can deal with before you start going, ‘Can I just see a working ultra-Orthodox family? Can I see a family that love each other and aren’t oppressed by their own laws?’”

He wants to help bring to fruition projects that not only “celebrate our own culture and our own identity”, but do it in ways that will surprise an audience.

“Let’s show how wonderful this community is, how quirky it can be, how Anglicised it can be,” he says passionately. “Let’s just allow people to see themselves on the screen and go, ‘Oh, for the first time in my life, I know this person.’”

There were three or four films this year, from a shortlist of six, that could have been made. Scholes had been told his grandfather’s story by his grandmother as a teenager, but it was not until years later that his uncle explained the wider geopolitical context.
At first, he applied for the Short Doc Fund. Till, though, suggested that he redo it as a drama for the Pears.

“I said, ‘You don’t have any footage, so it’s either going to be loads of still photographs and a voiceover, because there’s no one alive who can tell this, or you’re going to have to do a drama recreating it. If you’re going to do a drama recreation, £1,000 for a three minute film isn’t going to cut it.’”

Part of what interested the judges about his winning script, says O’Meara, were the “parallels with how modern antisemitism manifests itself”.

In the “knock-on effect for Jewish communities in the UK” of the Sergeants Affair, can be seen echoes of the way that the ripples of events in Israel now are often felt by Jews in the UK.
It’s a piece of Jewish history that not many Jews know about today. This gave the project a “mystique”, says Till.

A key part of the film, says Scholes, is a dinner table conversation between a character who sees himself as British first and Jewish second and his Yiddisher immigrant father-in-law, who prioritises his Jewish identity. To the mob that descends on the shop, such distinctions are irrelevant.

“Jews live in British society, relatively speaking, without too many problems,” says Scholes. “But when antisemitism does escalate, that Jewish identity is always the first thing that people target. Like, you can be British one day and then the next day you’re a Jew. That was something that I wanted to address.”

Till had his own experience of this when he went to meet representatives from a trade union to try and raise funding for an arts project about the Battle of Cable Street.

“There were something like 20 people sitting around a huge table, and within two minutes of my being there they were thanking me for the work I’ve done with gay rights, and then within four minutes they were shouting at me about Israel. And I genuinely don’t even know whether they decided to fund the project or not because I did not open another email from them, because the experience that they put me through was so traumatic and so uncomfortable, and I was embarrassed and ashamed.”

Although he considers himself to be “quite left wing”, he feels that left wing antisemitism is particularly dangerous, because people “accept it in a way that they don’t with the right. So, I think anything, and I really include The Soldier of Smithdown Road in this, that can make people think, is a good thing.”

Sam Rogg’s script for The Doll’s House blew Till away. Fearing the judges might skim read it looking for story beats, he implored them several times to focus on the language, which, he says, “sings”.

Sam had written plays but admits that she was initially reticent about writing for the Pears, when asked by her brother, Tim, shortly before the deadline.

“I just felt like I’m not ready. Like I’m not good enough,” she says.

“But I’m really lucky to have Tim be the director in that sense, because he doesn’t mince his words and said, ‘You’re ready, get on with it. I need the synopsis, now. I need the script, now.’ So, I felt really supported from the beginning, and pushed, because he’s my brother.”

“The gloves are off when you work with your family,” adds Tim. “So that’s a good thing.”
The Doll’s House promises an experience that will touch audiences and make them laugh. The first cut Till saw was “beautifully subtle”, he says, “just a delicate piece of filmmaking, where the jokes bubble up in a very repressed British way.”

For Tim, making the film with his sister while writers are striking in America, partly to protest the use of AI, has brought home the importance of “non-AI writing”.

“Sam’s writing is such a great example of what a computer will never be able to do, I hope,” he says.

“Creativity is about creating from nothing, and AI, I think, is essentially a regurgitation tool. We need more writers like Sam to come forward.”

Sam herself hopes that she is at the start of a new writing career in the film industry, and while she is worried about AI, she takes some comfort from the support that striking writers have received.

“Making this film in this particular year, when all of this is going on, has been really eye opening and terrifying, and also exciting.

“I feel like a lot of cinema at the moment is becoming very safe. They’re remaking a lot of stuff that they know has worked or they’re making five sequels of something, or everything’s being pushed through audience testing models. But I’m not sure that that’s ultimately what people want.

“I think we like seeing more unique original content, the kind of stuff that is maybe riskier or personal. So, I’m quite terrified. But also I feel reassured by how the world is reacting to this all.”

The Soldier of Smithdown Road and The Doll’s House will premiere at the UK Jewish Film Festival in November.

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