So the UK Jewish Film Festival rolls into town again, the cinmeatic equivalent of the Irish-themed pub, with all the boxes ticked to appeal to the non-Jewish stereotype of the Jew obsessed with Israel, wealth, death and rubbish comedy. Lavish funding thus secured, the UKJFF then maintains its grip on a complacent community, happy to lap up any representation of Jews on screen, regardless of its painful predictability and its vicious-circle representation of loss and death. The UKJFF does as much for Jewish identity as the Oirish Navvy, the flat-capped northern dunce or the happy dancing Bengalis do for their respective sections of society, the difference being that none of those groups would devote their only film festival to reinforcing the stereotypes.
So give us something new, a festival that celebrates, challenges, and experiments with decent films and decent jewishness. And might actually make a difference to the lives of British Jewry.
Yes, this year, there are appearances from Amos Gitai and Chantal Ackerman, as every year, there is some concession to a more political, a more poetic, and a more modern Jewish identity. Plus they showed the amazing KZ – now that is the kind of Jewish psychogeography we’re talking about. But such events are a rarity in a programme that is at best (or worst) summed up in this year’s opening film, Sixty Six. This is a terrible film, based on a premise unworthy even of a daytime 70s TV production, to which era its paper-thin premise belongs – a young boy has his barmitzvah on the same day as the 66 World Cup Final. Cue cliched arm-waving and thick pseudo-Yiddish accents in a suburban hell, from a cast of third-rate British luvvies looking appropriately half-dead. It’s not even as good as the Paul Simon remake of The Jazz Singer (the nadir of Jewish film til now) – at least that had some blacking up to keep you entertained.
And this is how the festival tends to continue, the odd interesting documentary being lost amidst a wave of stilted family dramas and further naval-gazing and backward-looking. The problem is, even if you programme a film that offers concessions to the rights of Palestinians, or revisits the forgotten history of Iraqi Jews, there’s no persuasion for the middle-ground to go – these films can just be ignored, and the effect for those who do venture to them is little more than fetishising the exotic, a tendency which the comfortable burghers of Hampstead and East Finchley so easily embrace.
So here’s a suggestion. Instead of films that just happen to be about Jews, why not look back at spectacular films that revolve around Jewish themes? A retrospective of international visual work that explores rootless cosmopolitanism and wandering mysticism – but no need to be restricted to this. Have a different theme every year, with films fanning out from a couple of the “big” Jewish releases – if, that is, they’re good enough to show. Take KZ, for example – start with that as your central film, with its ideas of the fantasy of place and the farce of history’s brutal repeating in civilised societies. Then programme Herzog’s “Heart of Glass” and Fassbinder’s “Fear Eats The Soul”, to show both the hypnotising power of landscape and the complacency of bourgeois society in ex-Fascist heartlands. They might not be Jews, or expliciyl cover Jewish subjects, but that only makes them stronger in being able to demonstrate the Jewish experience – the outsider’s eye on the essential transience of a diasporic people profoundly troubled and inspired by the mystical ties a people has to land, and the ignorance of new generations. And to take that indirect poetic approach to the Jewish experience would make for a truly Jewish, as well as a truly modern, festival.
All film students read Walter Benjamin, the greatest Jewish writer of culture ever. This is exactly what he suggested we do, so stop ignoring him. Allow some progress for once.
But this isn’t to say throw out the Jewish filmmakers with the bathwater. The festival needs to develop young and progressive filmmaking too. The film fund is a start, and has been reasonably forward-looking in its first couple of fundees. But there should also be workshops, classes and calls to arms, bringing people the vast range of talented jewish visual artists together and encouraging them to talk, collaborate and inspire a new generation. It’s not enough to get people to sit around formally after a screening and pay lip service to the issues they’ve just seen in Q+As. They should be roused to action, young and old – this is the era of User-Generated Content after all. The festival could be a hotbed of filming, debating and creativity. That it is not is indicative of the general spirit in the Brit-Jewish community to be content to be led and renege on their inheritance of being big bright clever and difficult, and best of all, uncategorisable, Jews. I want to see more and more work in the UKJFF that actually emanates from the community itself, however much they need dragging into making work, and indeed, however reactionary the eventual products. I want to see far more than just screenings – instead, a real festival, a real celebration, a real agora of negotiation
Now we’ll admit these are suggestions that need to be applied to nearly all other film festivals in the UK – the moribund state of film culture in Britain shows a malaise as large as that of the Jewish community, But there we go, we’ve always been pioneers and avant-gardists, so come on my cinematic Jews, let’s take the lead again, and make a wonderful, experimental, and thought-provoking modern Jewish film festival – not just because it’s good for the Jews, but because it’s good for everyone.