‘Jewish’ highlights at London Film Festival

Twelve days of screenings and many metres of red carpet filled London cinemas for the recent 62ndBFI London Film Festival. The Festival emphasised diversity and inclusion, with films from around the world giving a taste of the variety of contemporary cinema and of what we can expect to see on our screens in the coming year. Although Jewish themes did not take centre stage, several international Jewish filmmakers brought films to the LFF. Here’s my selection of films to look out for, directed by some of today’s leading Jewish filmmakers.

Mike Leigh’s period drama, Peterloo, premiered at Manchester’s HOME cinema, the first time that the BFI LFF has debuted a film outside of London. The Salford-raised director (who cut his socialist teeth at Jewish youth movement, Habonim) portrays the 1819 St Peter’s Field massacre, when British government forces charged into a rally of over 60,000 people who had gathered to demand political reform and to protest against rising levels of poverty. Starring Maxine Peake and Rory Kinnear, Peterloois sure to rouse crowds up and down the country on its general release, from November 2nd.

Veteran, prolific documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Monrovia, Indiana delves into daily life of rural America. Lasting 143 minutes, this is Wiseman’s shortest film in seven years. It’s long enough to paint a low-key and unsentimental insight that attempts to counter stereotypes and caricatures of a small-town Midwestern community. Monrovia, Indiana is distributed by Zipporah films– the distribution company named after Wiseman’s wife.

LFF boasted that 38% of films were directed by women (up from last year’s 31%). At a female-filmmaker panel, ideas of community were raised as a shared concern. Speaking on the panel was Hawaiian-Jewish filmmaker Dyana Winkler, who explores the American roller skating community in her wonderfully captivating documentary United Skates. Winkler described the genesis of the film, which came about as she was originally making a documentary about gentrification in New York. She and co-producer Tina Brown came across the underground movement of skaters, predominantly African-Americans, who were fighting to keep their rinks open. United Skates presents the shocking discrimination which the skaters face, as well as inspiring tales of octogenarians who have been skating all their lives and now attend the rink on “grown folks” night. HBO has picked up United Skates, so there’s a good chance it will be available in the UK and it’s well worth seeking out.

Another panellist who spoke about notions of community was Sara Blecher, the South African director of Mayfaira multi-cultural gangster thriller set in Johannesburg that centres on Somali and Indian gang violence. On first impression, it doesn’t sound very Jewish at all. But Blecher, who defines herself as a white, Jewish woman whose reality is far from the world depicted in Mayfair, saw that her task as director was to find points of identification in the film-world. “It’s completely about the Jewish experience”, she told me, “Jews and Muslims have so much in common!”. Furthermore, Blecher describes how the central theme in Mayfair is the process of worrying about turning into your parents, not wanting to become them, but turning into them anyway. If you’re usually reluctant to see gangster thrillers, perhaps this is the one to persuade you to take the plunge.

Taking place in an entirely different milieu, and much closer to the LFF’s home, is Benjamin,  a bittersweet British comedy directed and written by Simon Amstell (who brought Grandma’s House to our televisions). Benjaminis autobiographically-inspired and set in and amongst London’s trendy-pretentious art scene. The film presents writer/director Benjamin (Colin Morgan) who is screening his film at the LFF, and while he’s worrying about his career he finds himself awkwardly and self-consciously falling in love with a French singer. Amstell says that Benjamin is “me, in my late twenties” – and while Judaism doesn’t take a role in this cinematic version of the director, the sensibility of Benjamin is likely to please fans of Amstell’s more explicitly-Jewish work, as well as new audiences.

77 countries were represented at LFF – including one Israeli film. Unsettling, directed by Iris Zaki, is a sensitive, slow-but-steady documentary about Israeli settlers living in Tekoa, which will screen at the UK Jewish Film Festival in November.

Between the Jewish filmmakers shining at LFF and the themes showcased at the upcoming UK Jewish Film Festival, Jewish culture – in all its diversity – is thriving in world cinema.

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