UK Jewish Film Festival 2009: You don’t have to be Jewish – but it helps

The UK Jewish Film Festival marked its bar-mitzvah year this month – for those unfamiliar with Jewish culture, that’s its thirteenth birthday. As if to ram home the message, the festival included a revival of the BAFTA-winning 1976 TV drama The Bar Mitzvah Boy – and the theme returned in the festival’s suitably celebrated opening film, the latest from the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man.

They’re well-known as Jewish film-makers, but that’s not what got them into this festival. “ET wouldn’t have made it,” explained Daniela Boban, the festival’s programmer. She says films have to have a strong Jewish theme, exploring the religion and culture, uncovering the Jewish experience. And A Serious Man does this in bucket-loads.

It’s set in the run-up to the main character Larry’s son’s Bar-Mitzvah. His wife demands a Jewish cultural divorce. And with everything else in his life crumbling around him, he seeks guidance from the community’s rabbis. The film is so Jewish that much of it might be lost on more mainstream audiences.

The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man opened the festival
The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man opened the festival

A Serious Man had previously been screened at the London Film Festival – as had some of the other offerings, including the Israeli documentary about anti-semitism, Defamation, and the Israeli and Palestinian crime drama Ajami.

Another Israeli/Arab drama, Jaffa – a modern-day Romeo and Juliet of sorts – featured as the Centrepiece Gala and the festival closed with Hello Goodbye, a French film about a posh couple who emigrate to Israel, with Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant in the lead roles.

Other high-profile film-makers at the festival include Paul Schrader – who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo and Affliction, among others. At this festival, he was screening Adam Resurrected, starring Jeff Goldblum and Sir Derek Jacobi in the story of a Holocaust survival.

Features and shorts, narrative fictions and documentaries, live-action and animation, more than sixty titles – from as far and wide as Australia, France, Italy, the US and – of course – Israel – graced more than a dozen screens across London, and a selection will be shown across the UK early next year.

As well as massaging the egos of and providing a platform for more established film-makers, like other events, the UK Jewish Film Festival serves to boost first-timers and one of those featuring in this year’s event is director Claudia Solti, whose debut feature – co-written with actress Debra Tammer – had its UK Premiere here

A satire on everything from celebrity, to Jewish family life and the dry cleaning business, That’s For Me! is one of those films with an exclamation mark in the title, which is often seen as an attempt to alert the audience to the fact that it’s a comedy – in case they can’t tell by watching it.

That’s For Me! Writer/Director Claudia Solti with actor Steve Furst
That’s For Me! Writer/Director Claudia Solti with actor Steve Furst

There’s no danger with that here. That’s For Me! is a warm-hearted mockumentary about a deluded young Jewish actress, who’s as convinced that she’s going to make it as we are that she won’t. Directed in the pseudo-realist style of The Office, this takes a step further. In The Office, the audience shares the pain of David Brent’s co-workers, because they – like we – can see that their boss is – in truth – a loser. But in That’s For Me! all Zara Zimmerman’s friends and relatives share her delusion. There’s her overbearingly supportive mother, her frustrated actor of a father – who genuinely wishes her the success that eluded him, her hapless boyfriend whose only wishes are to win her heart and design the perfect dry-cleaning chemical, and then there’s her new-age life-coach who was lucky enough to take a salary, rather than a percentage.

This astoundingly narcissistic – but sweetly naive – monster of a character was created by Tammer, and expanded with Solti’s help. “Zara is based on the experiences Debra and I had trying to become famous as actresses ourselves,” laughs the director, as proud as she is embarrassed. Tammer adds that she’s always been interested in self-delusion. “It’s fun to play a bad person,” she continues. “You can express things through a bad person that you couldn’t say yourself. It’s quite liberating.”

The pair outlined a rigorous storyline, but left the script itself loose enough for the actors to improvise, to the extent that most of the actors didn’t know what the others were going to say or do. Steve Furst – known to many as Lenny Beige and to others for TV series including Little Britain and The Late Edition – plays the forlorn love interest. “Improvisation is fun and easy, as you don’t have to learn any lines. We were told the beginning and end of the scene and the rest is up to you.”

For Ken Kennedy, who plays the embarrassing father – and oh, is he embarrassing at that dinner table?! – the UK Jewish Film Festival was the first time he’d seen the film. “I cringed as I was watching myself. I’m not really like that!” he assured the audience.

Discussing how they work together creatively, Tammer described herself and Solti as “The Coen Sisters” – and they certainly appeared that way, turning up as they did in their matching faux-leopard-skin jackets. But like the Coen Brothers, as well as trying to produce laughs, they’re not scared to confront more serious issues. Race surfaces as a subject matter over dinner on more than one occasion – as you might expect in such a family set-up. But even where the diners are the closest of friends and relatives, differing attitudes show through, and Solti and Tammer don’t hold their punches. “We didn’t want to water down reality,” insisted Solti. “We wanted to show things that people reveal behind closed doors, that they’d never say in public. It’s important not to shy away from things that are awkward. It’s important to be brave.”

Finding friends and family to put £10,000 into a fun film you want to shoot with a bunch of mates could be seen as brave in some quarters, but it’s paid off so far, and with post-production financing from the UK Film Council, it’s almost certain to reach a wider audience.

And if screening at this festival provides a boost to the careers of the self-proclaimed “Coen Sisters,” the festival is hoping to provide similar opportunities to other home-grown talent. “There aren’t enough British film makers in the festival ,” bemoans programmer Daniela Boban. To this end, the festival runs an annual competition to fund two short films, so support and promote the next generation of film-makers who can appeal to the sensibilities of a Jewish-slanted audience.