Making a Jewish Scene: 18th UK Jewish Film Festival Reviewed

The Shabbat table, a familiar setting for many Jews, made an appearance in several films, highlighting a shared experience, but also exposing differences in tone and meaning. For the Halimi family in doco-drama 24 Days (dir: Alexandre Arcady) the Shabbat table represents a moment of calm and unity before their life is shattered. It serves to remind the viewer what the French police refused to admit – Ilan Halimi was abducted and tortured because he was a Jew. This image is subverted in Israeli films, where the Shabbat table becomes a façade behind which lurk loss, isolation and disconnection. While the family in hard-hitting drama Youth (dir: Tom Shoval, image above) tuck into food and make small talk, the father ignores his growing debts, and his two sons hold a girl hostage in the dark cellar below… This scene encapsulates the crisis at the heart of Israeli middle class, bankrupt financially and ideologically, and bereft of empathy. The Shabbat table here is the locale of make-believe, which is all that remains as the two brothers construct their identity from American action movies in a futile attempt to ward off impending disaster.

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In contrast to the moral vacuum presented in Youth, documentary The Internet’s Own Boy (dir: Brian Knappenberger), carries a beacon of Jewish liberal values. The film is a tribute to Aaron Swartz, an American ‘hacktivist’ and leading internet developer, who killed himself at the age of 26 after being hounded by the FBI.  Swartz campaigned for unrestricted access to public and academic information, and against laws which threatened to stifle free speech on the web.

While American secular Jewish identity in The Internet’s Own Boy is intertwined with progressive ideas, the rom-com We’ll Never Have Paris (dirs: Simon Helberg, Jocelyn Towne) shows it through the familiar tropes used by comedians such as Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  The hero is a hypochondriac, insecure schlimazel who always manages to put his foot in it, yet is still pursued by a gorgeous ‘shiksa’.

Against these depictions, a more fractured identity emerges from documentary film Unorthodox. Director Anna Wexler follows three questioning American teenagers sent by their orthodox families on a gap year to yeshiva in Jerusalem. Like many of Wexler’s own friends, the three ‘re-connect’ with their Jewishness only by leaving the US and interacting with two places that are perceived here as the shaping foundations of Jewish identity – Israel and  Auschwitz.

For Wexler’s teenagers Israel signifies freedom, but in Israeli films it can be an oppressive environment. In the aptly titled Anywhere Else (dir: Ester Amrami), Israeli identity is defined through loss and combat, encapsulated in the backdrop of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hatzmaut. Bereaved by the Holocaust and the war, Noa’s family is plagued by personal rifts, driving Noa to seek a new life in Berlin. A short visit back home in the company of her German boyfriend shows how futile this escape really is.

Third generation relationships are also explored in German-produced film, Hanna’s Journey (dir: Julia von Heinz). Although the film is channelled through a non-Jewish German young woman who reluctantly travels to Israel, her romantic interest, the Israeli Itai, like Noa, escapes from the burden of his brother’s death to find a new freedom in Berlin.

The Holocaust is a backstage spectre in the life of young Israelis as depicted in these films – the subject of morbid jokes or inter-generational silences but never directly tackled.

The number of European films shown in the festival that engage with the Holocaust as a central theme seem to suggest that Jewish identity is constructed differently on this side of the pond. Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust adds another layer to the filmmaker’s tireless effort to comprehend and document the Holocaust, while Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s Once in a Lifetime explores its legacy, as a group of French inner city youth transform through their encounter with this harrowing chapter of Jewish history.

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Night Notes

So where does British Jewish cinema fit in? Tellingly, the only Jewish-themed films from the UK screened at this year’s festival were a collection of shorts, all of them past and present winners of The Pears Short Film Fund established by Jewish Film UK, which almost single-handedly keeps Jewish British cinema alive. The 2014 winners are markedly different. Samuel-613 (dir: Billy Lumby) is set in London’s Stamford Hill and includes some Yiddish dialogue. Its protagonist, a young Haredi man, is in the midst of an identity crisis, as he lives a secular fantasy through engagement with social networking sites, while still living in his parents’ observant home. The almost obligatory Shabbat table scene simmers with tension that erupts as Samuel storms from the room in a shower of obscenities. The conflict is never fully resolved, but Haredi Jewish identity is presented in the film as something that cannot be shaken off or escaped from.

The Divorce (dirs: David and Danny Scheinmann) is a more light-hearted affair as a couple is instructed by their Rabbi to throw a ‘divorce party’. Being Jewish is associated with a strong sense of community, mutual support, and responsibility, but as viewed through the eyes of the only Non-Jews at the party – not that much fun.

The UK Jewish Film Festival is ‘an apolitical cultural festival’, said founder and executive director Judy Ironside in response to the well–documented proposed boycott by the Tricycle Cinema.  Yet, as the festival includes the work of film makers from Israel, the conflict in the Middle East is bound to be present. Recent offerings show that Israeli identity is very much defined in relation to a Palestinian one.  Feature film Bethlehem (dir: Yuval Adler) and documentary The Green Prince (dir: Nadav Schirman) both focus on the microcosm – the relationship between two individuals on different sides of the conflict.  In sleek thriller Bethlehem, Razi, a secret service officer, develops a close relationship with his teenaged ‘source’, and boundaries are crossed and blurred as he is torn between national and personal agendas. The film refrains from making an overt political statement, which is a political statement in itself.

Real life is no less gripping as a similar relationship unfolds in The Green Prince, though the outcome is more optimistic – seeing one self’s in the other is the way forward, but it does have a price tag.

In the surreal Self-Made (dir: Shira Geffen) this intertwined identity is played off to the extreme as two women, an Israeli and a Palestinian swap places, but nobody seems to notice the change.

The UK Jewish Film Festival is an index of sorts when it comes to assessing how contemporary Jews from different countries and backgrounds view themselves and their culture.  Entering the cinema meant accepting a complexity that the black and white placards outside never could.

Noga Applebaum is a lecturer in Children’s Literature and Creative Writing, and is a member of the UK Jewish Film Festival programming committee.

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