As the UK Jewish Film Festival rolls into Yorkshire, Film Critic Tony Earnshaw talks to filmmakers and programmers about how movies can build bridges and preach tolerance.
Gur Bentwich admits he was so nervous about screening his documentary to his family that he deliberately avoided inviting certain relatives.
His droll documentary, The Bentwich Syndrome, takes pot-shots at his grandiose great-grandfather, Herbert, who left his homeland for a new life in England and, along the way, reinvented himself and his children.
Herbert was a 19th century lawyer who created a mighty dynasty with aristocratic pretensions. His single-minded pursuit of status has led to many using him as an example of how not to get on in life and business. Great-grandson Gur approached that outrageous determination with a detective’s nose for the truth.
“We have in the family this weird thing; some of the family want to hide some of the stories so they don’t get out. But it was a hundred years ago. I got a bit of criticism – that some of my ancient ancestors didn’t get the respect they deserved (and that) the film is being a bit disrespectful.
“Other people like to see people laughing at their families. It’s a problem with your family when you’re laughing that might get tricky. I was a bit worried when we had the first screenings in Israel. I actually didn’t invite some of the crazier uncles on purpose but they came along anyway without being invited, which made me even more worried.”
Unravelling his family history gave Bentwich an opportunity to consider exactly why Herbert and his long-dead scions sought to improve themselves in their own eyes and the eyes of others. He started his journey cynically. At road’s end he felt much warmer to Herbert. “I would say that it’s much more of an immigrant trait – Jews being very much into immigration – to create this make-believe nobility from nowhere. It’s handier when you’re an immigrant.
“If you’re a working-class Englishman you probably wouldn’t tend to make up this story about being nobility. You’re probably relaxed with the spot that you’re brought into.
“I think immigrants do tend to do it more and Jews do tend to have this idea in their minds that they have to be something and make a change. Or maybe it’s just my family. Is it a Jewish trait or is it universal?”
The festival aims to share its programme with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
The cross-section of films on offer, says festival director Michael Etherton, is crucial. What’s more, most won’t be distributed widely so touring them under the festival banner is often the only way they will be seen on the big screen.
Etherton is also keen to use cinema to break down barriers and prejudice. Just six years ago Ken Loach was at the forefront of a campaign to force the Edinburgh International Film Festival to hand back a £300 grant from the Israeli embassy in London to cover the travel expenses of director Tali Shalom Ezer, director of the short film Surrogate, which was playing in the festival.
The festival eventually bowed to pressure – the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign led the protest with Loach urging people to boycott the event “and show their support for the Palestinian nation” – and gave the money back.
It’s uncomfortable rows like that, which send ripples through the film community as people dig in to defend their own personal standpoint. Etherton acknowledges it, but says the touring programme showcasing some of the best of contemporary Israeli cinema can have a positive impact.
“Around 35 per cent of our films are from Israel,” he says. “We show a huge range of views – political and otherwise – from filmmakers in Israel.
“Part of what we can do is inform opinion and debate in a more substantial and meaningful way because you get a much more nuanced view of society through a film than you might do in a short two-minute news piece.
“Israeli film remains an important part of the work that we bring together with films on Jewish themes or Jewish stories.”
He adds: “We are living in quite difficult times for minority communities – including the Jewish community – in the UK and further afield. We know from statistics that incidents of anti-Semitism have increased hugely over the last two years. Through film we do our own bit to help share a better understanding of Jewish life and stories. It’s a positive way to bring communities together in a way when it’s needed more than ever before.”
John Goldschmidt has been making movies for more than 40 years. Among his credits was the acclaimed TV play Spend, Spend, Spend, which detailed the extraordinary rise and tragic fall of Castleford pools winner Viv Nicholson.
Now Goldschmidt has made Dough, starring Jonathan Pryce as an elderly orthodox Jewish baker who takes on a young practising Muslim apprentice. He calls it “a buddy movie about two most unlikely friends.”
“It appealed to me because I was looking to make a film that had comedic potential but addressed social issues that were of real concern to a British audience at this moment in time,” says Goldschmidt.
“In a sense Dough is a film about overcoming prejudice. These are two seriously religious people who initially don’t like one another: an old white guy and a young black guy, an old Jew and a young Muslim. They come from totally different backgrounds. But it just shows that if you have decent people there’s no reason why they can’t be buddies.”
Following sell-out screenings in France and America Goldschmidt praises the touring element of the UK Jewish Film Festival. “The response has been the same in France, in the screenings we had in England, in America: the audiences get it, they laugh and they are emotionally moved.
“When I started working on this story over three years ago the asylum-seeking wave of people coming to Europe wasn’t the phenomenon that it is now. And there hadn’t been the terrorist attacks against a Jewish supermarket and then in Denmark and various other places. So the film has become very topical. And we’re trying to be on the side of the angels.”
Gur Bentwich won’t be in Leeds for his screening. But he hopes the film will be a hit with audiences who accept its humour. “Kanye West is allowed to say ‘n*****’ a lot of times in one song. Me and you are not allowed to. It goes the same with Jews and their weird behaviours, too, I guess. Everybody is allowed to criticise himself but when you do it to other people they like it less. The Bentwich Syndrome could feel like an anti-Semitic film if it wasn’t done by a Jew who’s actually a Bentwich himself.
“Nobody would get the humour and everybody would think it just came along to give them a bad reputation. But I’m allowed to do it. I can get away with it being a Jew and a Bentwich.”
Breaking down barriers
The UK Jewish Film Festival includes 80 international films from 15 countries with 50 premieres and arrives in Leeds this weekend.
The Bentwich Syndrome is one of four films – the others are Dough, Hill Start and What’s in a Name? – coming to Yorkshire as part of the touring element of the UK Jewish Film Festival.
Playing at Seven Arts and MAZCC in Leeds between November 8 and 22, the quartet represents what festival director Michael Etherton calls “powerful, inspiring and moving films aiming to reflect and share a greater understanding of Jewish life and culture, and to dispel prejudice and fight racism and anti-Semitism.”
For more information about the festival go to www.ukjewishfilm.org.