JLife’s Elaine Bermitz reviews a selection of films from the UK Jewish Film Festival
Stricken by a cold which seemed to last for ages, I was able to take full advantage of the online pass which gave me access to every online film, long or short – around 40 in total.
Divided into five sections: documentaries, humour, dramas, foreign language films and LGBT films, there was a wealth of choice, so I chose two from each category, and the three gala films. There was a lot of watching, but almost all of it was enjoyable and due to the flexible format, which allowed me to select a film any time within 72 hours of its release and then have 24 hours to watch it, allowed me to work around the watching.
Thou Shall Not Hate I found to be an enigmatic film, with a simple plot: the refusal by a surgeon to save the life of an ex-Nazi, and the subsequent effect on him and the dead Nazi’s family. We watch the effect of hatred on a surgeon, his victim’s two sons, and his daughter, whom he attempts to compensate for her loss. Whatever he does is not enough, nor is the hatred which consumes the fascist movement in Italy. Even more poignant was the way it was passed to the youngest person in the film who at his father’s funeral, lifts an arm in a Nazi salute, following the example of the mourners.
Final Account, the centrepiece of the gala by the late Luke Holland, took ten years to make and investigated the way onlookers became sucked into the evil of the Holocaust, asking what they did in the second World War, and what they thought the concentration camps were if they weren’t for the forced labour and killing of Jews. So many self-delusions, wilful ignorance, or shame featured. One person even dared to deny its existence, and advocate Hitlers actions, demonstrating that, even in the face of evidence, Hitler was doing the best thing for Germany.
Sin La Habana closed the festival on the lightest of notes. Crammed with music and dancing, and only a glancing reference to the Ladino speaking Iranian Jewish settlers in Canada. The film follows dancer Leonardo’s escape from Cuba to Canada, by marrying Nassim, and the effect on his girlfriend, who follows on.
Between these three was the wonderful documentary Maverick Modigliani, the most exquisitely shot life of the Jewish artist told by his girlfriend Jean Herbutenne. A tragic tale of extraordinary talent, illness, fragile love, friendship with the greatest twentieth century artists, of displacement and poverty, and the concentration of so many artists in Paris. Jean’s narrative recalls her passionate love for her teacher and lover, while the story of his artistic life is told in parallel. As his art develops, so does the tuberculosis from which he had suffered as a child. He is forced to follow his wife to her parents’ home where, pregnant with their second child, she sought rest. They returned to Paris, where Modigliani died. Jean committed suicide two days later.
His sensual, primitive, graphic pictures of nude women with anonymised faces and unseeing eyes shocked and changed the art world, inspiring Cubism and Surrealist movements and the tender recounting of their story made this a heartrending documentary to watch.
Soros, another documentary, intrigued us in another way. The division in opinion about this most fearless entrepreneur, George Soros, was as divided as his business interests. Thought alternately a sinister figure controlling the finances of the world and a philanthropist, supporting any cause in the name of freedom of the individual and the cause of justice throughout the world, it was clear that he has exerted his power over some of the epoch changing decisions in recent times. The freeing of Nelson Mandela, the Black Lives Matter movement, the – admittedly mistaken – support of Aung Sang Suu Kyi were all funded by one of his foundations. His philosophy seemed simple enough: “If you see a good thing that is struggling, fund it and let those who know about running it run it.”
Of the LBGTQ+ films two were upbeat, Kiss Me Kosher and Sublet, while Ma Belle, My Beauty was a more lyrical exploration of same sex love and infidelity, and Two explores the desire for a child. Two oldies were shown. The Policeman, a fifty-year-old Israeli film, and The Lucky Star, by the brilliant Jack Rosenthal and Dr Max Fischer added some nostalgia and some lovely shots of early Jerusalem.
A Starry Sky above the Roman Ghetto also contained some lovely scenes, this time of the ghetto near the oldest synagogue and the Jewish schools and restaurants throughout the quarter. A beautiful location for a timeless love story that ends satisfactorily to the happiness of all. The UK Jewish Film Festival has grown from an inspirational idea by Judy Ironside, to a fully rounded international festival which wins prizes and acclaim from all the independent festivals around the world, its entries competing for Oscars on occasion.
To survive the challenges that the arts have had these past two years from COVID and still provide with such strong and varied films is even more amazing. In addition to watching the festival you can subscribe to UK Jewish Film to hire films all year, which makes a very good alternative to Netflix or Sky Arts. There were more good films than I could possibly take in at one go, so I have bought myself a subscription for this year. Judging by what I have seen these past ten days it will be well worth it.