Extra special day at shul as short film 'Call Me Alvy' is filmed at Belsize Square Synagogue


It is 8.30am on a blustery morning and more than 35 members of the community are hurrying into north Londons Belsize Square Synagogue, dressed up in their finest clothes for a barmitzvah. 

They chatter among themselves until they take their seats and wait for proceedings to begin. The rabbi approaches the bimah and looks out at the admiring congregants, but does not say a word.

It is only when he is given his cue from the wings —prompted by a yell of: “Sound, speed, lighting, take one!” — that he begins to sing his prayer. He introduces the barmitzvah boy, Brian Silver, and discusses the portion he will be reading.

“Cut!” yells the same imperious voice from above. “Stand by for another take then, folks. Nice and solemn.”

And so the scene unfolds again — and again — until eventually the director is happy with the shot. Then the congregants are ushered into the shul’s main hall, where they sit helping themselves to snacks to pass the time, while the “rabbi” — actor Jeremy Rose, who is not Jewish — takes notes on his performance.

This was the day the film cameras came to shul.

The picture in question, Call Me Alvy, is a short film, written and directed by film-maker Alexei Slater for Turn The Slate Productions and filmed over two days last Wednesday and Thursday. It tells the story of Brian — portrayed by 14-year-old Adam Bregman — a young boy obsessed with Alvy Singer, the character played by Woody Allen in his movie Annie Hall.

Mr Slater favoured Belsize Square as his location and advertised in the JC for extras to play “barmitzvah guests”.

“I wanted to make it as true to life as possible,” he explained. “I tried to get people from the area who were Jewish so they knew what a barmitzvah was like. And we really wanted to get a good atmosphere on the day.”

To the director’s delight, he had an overwhelming response from the community, mostly from retirees who fancied a day out with a difference — especially one that involved paying tribute to comedy king Woody Allen.

“If you have not been an extra and have not been on a film set before, it can be a bit tedious,” Mr Slater said. “The material can end up becoming a bit stale, but the extras were great.”

For Edwin Strauss, a Belsize Square member, “it just seemed like a bit of fun, really, a diversion from the norm. It was something I had never done before, so I just thought ‘why not?’ Perhaps it will be the start of my career in Tinseltown”.

Joan Arton, another shul member, agreed: “I was very excited getting ready this morning — it felt as if I was going to a real barmitzvah.”

Hannah Stimler, aged 14, and Anne Meyer, 15, explained: “We’re doing drama GCSE, so we thought it would be a good thing to see.”

Though the scene is filmed inside an independent shul that is not under Orthodox aegis, the service has been split by gender.

Shul member Rebecca Trenner, a writer, says she found this decision “odd. It is interesting that they are making the assumption that normative Judaism has to be Orthodox. That can be problematic”.

Born and raised in Finchley, north London, for Mr Slater Call Me Alvy is close to home, both in subject matter and location. Although not autobiographical, the film is well-timed, coming 20 years after the director’s own barmitzvah.

He has chosen to dedicate it to the memory of his old Hebrew teacher, Svi Rosenwasser, whose daughter Ofra joined in as an extra.

A particular coup for Mr Slater and his team was landing Tracy-Ann Oberman to play Brian’s mother. After approaching her on Twitter, the film-maker found common ground with the actress through their mutual love of Mr Allen.

“He said that this film was a homage to Annie Hall, so how could I refuse?” Ms Oberman said. “And I always like to support young and innovative talent.”

She added: “Extras are nearly always surprised, and sometimes aghast, at how long, arduous and slow the process of filming is. What is one page of dialogue can take hours and hours to complete. Glamour goes out the window, but the shul congregation were patient and very professional.”

As the arduous day draws to a close, final takes are made, scenes are wrapped, and the cast are dismissed, leaving Mr Slater and his post-production team to months of intricate visual and sound editing.

He hopes to take the finished product on the road to film festivals as well as holding a screening at the JW3 community centre in north London.


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