What makes a film Jewish? Does it need a Jewish mother? It’s easy to find a Jewish person involved at some stage in the production of a great many Hollywood films – and certainly most Israeli films. On the other hand, a film about Jews made by non-Jewish people should surely be considered in the category of Jewish film. As with most things Jewish, there is no clear-cut answer.
For some viewers, it is enough for a Jewish writer, director, or star to be Jewish, for a film to be considered Jewish. Think the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Noah Baumbach. For others, Jewish themes are the point of identification, whether there are Jewish people involved in the filmmaking or not. Films about the Holocaust, or those Hollywood comedies featuring Jewish weddings, funerals and barmitzvahs, strike a chord with Jewish viewers and also convey aspects of Jewish experiences to non-Jewish audiences. And then we have Israeli cinema, which may focus on Jews or Arabs, religious or political life, and often has plots in which Jewishness is irrelevant. Do we count every film made in Israel as a Jewish film?
Ultimately, what makes a film Jewish is subjective. There are several entry-points to Jewish culture, including comedy, language, history, religious observance and Israel, and these are reflected in Jewish cinema. Not everyone will connect in the same way to a film, so a definition of Jewish cinema needs to be broad. Perhaps the point is to interrogate our personal ideas of Jewishness, and then, hopefully, to open our minds to the various ways in which other people understand Judaism.
Jewish film festivals can promote, challenge and diversify Jewish culture. They cater to a disparate community and provide the space for us to think about what we have in common, as well as our differences. They also present the diversity of Jewish culture to unfamiliar audiences.
These thoughts are prompted by UK Jewish Film Festival, which will run from 8 to 22 November, featuring 85 films at 120 screenings in 5 cities across the UK. Now in its 22nd year, the Festival reflects the huge variety of Jewish film – and the different ways in which international filmmakers engage with Jewish culture. The programme comprises drama, comedy, documentary and short films as well as new strands, events aimed at young professionals and families, gala screenings and a chance to see the Pears Short Film Fund winning projects.
The Festival opens with a gala screening of Israeli drama Working Woman at BFI Southbank. Directed by Michal Aviad and starring Liron Ben Shlush, this timely film follows Jerusalemite mother-of-three Orna as she faces sexual harassment at work. Working Woman is a welcome Israeli contribution to debates around the #MeToo movement, and its prominent position in the programme suggests the Festival’s commitment to reflecting contemporary issues.
2018 has been a great year for documentaries at the box office and the UK Jewish Film Festival is set to boost this trend with a strong line-up of non-fiction films. Three Identical Strangers will screen as the Centrepiece Gala at London’s beautiful Regent Street Cinema. Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman are identical triplets, separated at birth and adopted by three different families in the United States. Reunited by chance at the age of 19, the charismatic triplets were the focus of great public interest in the 1980s. Director Tim Wardle delves deep into the brothers’ stories before and after the period of their initial fame, investigating the events of their separation and broaching the science of nature and nurture. This engrossing documentary is full of both delightful and troubling revelations.
This year’s Festival inaugurates the Alan Howard International Documentary Strand. Judy Ironside, Founder and Executive Director of UK Jewish Film, says it brings “five of the best new documentaries with guest directors and panel discussions. The films have been selected for their diversity, challenging topics and also for the opportunity to hear from and debate with the filmmakers and protagonists in person.”
The strand includes The Mossad: Imperfect Spies, from Israeli director Duki Dror. Interviews with former spy-chiefs and operatives promise to give us a rare insight into the famed Israeli intelligence agency, while their personal accounts give voice to the ethical and political challenges they faced.
The Accountant of Auschwitz is a thoughtful and engaging documentary about the German trial of Oskar Gröning, one of the last SS members to be implicated in Nazi crimes against humanity. Gröning’s prosecution for accessory to the murder of 300,000 people began in 2014 when he was 93 years old, and Canadian director Matthew Shoychet balances a legal perspective with human aspects of the law.
Post-war attitudes to Nazis are also examined by leading Austrian documentarist Ruth Beckermann in The Waldheim Waltz, which weaves together archive footage from the 1980s of former UN General Secretary Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi officer. Beckermann probes notions of guilt, truth, power and memory to create a thought-provoking reflection on the past which has sharp relevance for today’s political climate.
The politics of Israel-Palestine are the focus of The Oslo Diaries, a new Israeli documentary about the Oslo Accords. Directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan take a creative approach to representing the negotiations. Rather than relying purely on talking heads and newsreel, they incorporate diary readings and re-enactments to bring the events into the present.
City of Joel is an American documentary directed by Jesse Sweet that portrays a year in Kiryas Joel, a small area in Orange County NY inhabited by members of the Satmar Hasidic sect. The film gives a unique view into this insular community and the challenges facing their way of life, as their population growth is rapid and poverty levels are high. How do they interact with the secular world? What happens when they try to purchase more land? City of Joel delves into the community with empathy, while drawing our attention to the differences that define the Satmar in this inward-looking 1.1 square mile.
Documentaries screening in the general programme include two musical biopics. Itzhak is an uplifting portrait of Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman. New York-based director Alison Chernick brings to the fore Perlman’s joyful spirit and immense talent, which have helped him to overcome challenges – he contracted polio age four and has used crutches or a wheelchair since – and her inclusion of Perlman’s wife Toby brings an extra dimension to the film. Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, directed by Samuel Pollard, charts the ground-breaking entertainer’s extraordinary life and 60 years in showbusiness. Taking its title from Davis Jr.’s 1969 hit single, the documentary features new interviews with stars such as Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg and contains glorious archive footage of Sammy Davis Jr.’s performances and personal life. The singer proves to be a fascinating lens through which to consider 20th Century America’s racial and religious climate.
Why the Jews? explores with sensitivity and curiosity the age-old question of how and why Jewish people are statistically over-represented in some high-achieving areas of life. It’s a controversial question that is tackled by Canadian director John Curtin, who must tip-toe carefully through interviews and archive footage to get to the bottom of this often taboo topic. But it’s a question worth asking, which is often asked behind closed doors, and in the right hands it may present some interesting and affecting answers.
The Prince and the Dybbuk is an investigation into the enigmatic personality of Prince Michał Waszyński, most well known as the director of 1937 Yiddish film, The Dybbuk. Waszyński was born Moshe Waks, the son of a blacksmith in Ukraine, and died a Prince in Italy. Directors Piotr Rosolowski and Elwira Niewiera unpick the multiple identities and stories which Waszyński spun about himself, tracing his steps around the world and asking what it means to be yourself.
Sally Noach is the subject of Forgotten Soldier, a Dutch/British documentary directed by Lucile Smith, which attempts to uncover the truth about the father of Lady Irene Hatter and her brother Jacques Noach; separately, Lady Irene Hatter reflects here on the journey that prompted the film. They have received letters from people saying that their father saved their lives during the second world war, but they have no testimony from him or solid evidence. Forgotten Soldier traces Noach’s life to find evidence of his wartime experiences, from his birth in Zutphen, Holland in 1909, to the time when he was caught up in Nazi invasion and went to Lyon. But what happened next? Did he really save so many people from deportation and from being sent to concentration camps? The tumultuous war years and their aftermath provide rich ground for an emotional search.
The Museum, directed by Ran Tal, goes behind the scenes at the Israel Museum. Public spaces have proven to be frequent and popular subjects for documentaries, such as Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Such institutions pose questions about how we memorialise and consume culture, and The Museum gives us the opportunity to think specifically about Israeli and Jewish culture. We are invited to admire the museum’s collections, and are also introduced to the rarely acknowledged staff whose work makes the exhibitions possible.
Unsettling is a brave and exhilarating documentary by Iris Zaki (director of 2015’s Women In Sink). Attempting to capture life in the West Bank settlement Tekoa, Zaki sets up her pop-up film studio in the town square and records interactions among its inhabitants, who are largely trendy hippie-types, initially very hostile to Zaki’s filming project. Themes of provocation and tolerance play out in the context of ownership and representation, while we see the impact of occupation on the lives and attitudes of the settlers..
European drama also has a strong presence in the Festival line-up. Outstanding performances from Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann) and Jirí Menzel blend comedy and tragedy beautifully in The Interpreter, from Slovakian director Martin Sulík. The plot follows the son of Holocaust survivor when he meets the son of Nazi, and the pair embark on a journey to discover the past.
Period dramas include Budapest Noir, a murder mystery set in Budapest 1936, directed by Éva Gárdos. Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in Promise at Dawn (directed by Éric Barbier) as Nina Kacew, the mother of award-winning novelist Romain Gary. This atmospheric and lively film relates Gary’s childhood in Poland, where he was born in 1914, and his youth in Paris as he strove to fullfill his mother’s soaring ambition.
An annual highlight of the Festival is the screening of the Pears Short Film Fund winners. 2018’s winning films are 100 Faces by Benjamin Till, in which 100 Jews born each year over 100 years sing and speak to camera; and Starboy by Joëlle Bentolila, a drama about a married couple.
UK Jewish Film gives prominence to short films through dedicated screenings as well as the shorts that accompany many feature-length films. On My Way Out: The Secret Life of Nani and Popi is an impressive short which, at 40 minutes long, provides a heart-warming and heart-breaking portrait of Roman and Ruth Blank. The couple are both concentration camp survivors aged 95 at the time of filming. Their grandchildren record the Roman as he comes out as gay. On My Way Out deftly handles the mixed emotions of a marriage, delicately representing intimacy, tragedy and the sadness of missed opportunities.
Another rousing short is Death Metal Grandma, directed by Leah Galant. Inge Ginsberg is a poet and a singer, born in Austria and living in Upstate New York. She fled the Holocaust, survived a refugee camp in Switzerland, and settled in Hollywood with her husband. They both worked as composers, writing songs for singers including Nat King Cole, Doris Day and Dean Martin. Now 91 year old widow, she has an unusual hobby – she’s a death metal singer, shouting her lyrics instead of singing them to ensure her ageing voice is always heard. We follow her as she reaches new audiences, practising and performing with young musicians and refusing to remain silent. Ginsberg’s strength of personality is unforgettable.
A Night at the Garden is a chilling documentary short film compiled from archive footage of a Nazi rally in New York. In 1939, 22,000 Americans rallied in Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism. Director Marshall Curry, a two-time Oscar nominee, presents the footage starkly and without explanatory voiceover, leaving us to absorb the reality of historic antisemitism and the connotations for today.
The Festival includes events aimed at audiences of all ages. Family-friendly screenings include animation The Legend of King Solomon, and there will also be baby-friendly screening of main features as part of JW3’s Babykino screenings.
On 15 November, the Barbican Centre will host City Without Jews, a special screening of the 1924 Austrian expressionist film directed by Hans Karl Breslauer, accompanied by a newly-commissioned score by Olga Neuwirth. The Barbican collaboration with UK Jewish Film continues after the festival, with The Cohens and the Kellys on 25 November. This 1926 comedy kicked off a hugely popular series of culture-clash films. The screening will be accompanied by live music drawing on Irish and Jewish folk music traditions.
The range of films at this year’s Festival demonstrates the rich diversity of Jewish films. With so many different points of connection on offer, it celebrates the countless ways in which films, and people, can be Jewish. The full programme is available online at http://ukjewishfilm.org, where you can book tickets, sign up for regular updates, and become a UKJF Member.