I am not Jewish. For me, it is hard work hacking through the thorny tangle of Jewishness. What am I to make of the Holocaust, murderous pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism? What am I to make of the foundation of the state of Israel, Israel’s wars of independence and expansion and the on-going Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? What am I to make of the failures of the peace process, the battle for Jewish demographic supremacy in Israel and the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the USA and the UK? The global Jewish population is tiny, only about the size of the London commuter belt, but there is no question that ‘Jewishness’ captures the world’s imagination in mysterious ways, polarised, quite often, between fear and hatred, and blind defence behind the shield of history.
Thankfully, the UKJFF tackled ‘The Jewish Question’ head on with a tongue-in-cheek short before each of the films. It was a telling of the famous ‘So, Mrs Cohen…’ joke (google it) by various comedians and celebrity Jews, including David Baddiel, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Vanessa Feltz and Rabbi Lionel Blue. We’re forced to examine the joke: is the humour inclusive or exclusive? Is the joke anti-Semitic? Funny? Just plain bad? Is it okay to laugh? The film ends with the Victor Borge quote, ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,’ and the ice is broken.
The feature films, particularly Diplomat and Protektor, tackle intensely Jewish narratives: modern social problems in Israel and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, the stories themselves are not necessarily Jewish, they are universal tales of love, loss and redemption.
Diplomat is a superbly-shot documentary film about immigrants to Israel from the USSR. Over one million Jews have immigrated into Israel since the breakup of the USSR, drawn by the promise of a better life among their own people. In a country with a total population of only 5 million in 1991, absorption of these immigrants represented a serious social difficulty, and it continues to this day. The film follows the lives, loves and losses of a few hundred Soviet immigrants who were temporarily housed in the five-star Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. Now, over fifteen years later, temporary has become permanent. There’s a war veteran with a hundred medals on his uniform, an elderly dancer with an obsession for hats and a man who roams the hallways with a cat draped over his shoulders. A former Soviet piano virtuoso is now reduced to playing for tiny audiences in the hotel. ‘Here my life ended,’ he says. ‘Israel is a prison sentence. I did feel good once in Israel – when I was under general anaesthetic.’ This bitter-sweet tone goes through the film. We spend time with a young violinist who lives in a room with his grand-mother and dreams of studying under an Italian master, but is ashamed of his old violin. The hotel fixer secures a grant of $10,000 for him, but shortly afterwards his grand-mother dies and the film ends with him packing her life into boxes.
Protektor is a film about the Holocaust, but it is much more than that: it is a story of trapped lives and forced decisions. A Czech radio announcer chooses to become the voice of the Nazi occupation to protect his Jewish wife, his wife chooses obliteration over the claustrophobia of mere survival, another employee of the radio station chooses to marry a Nazi official, but her former boyfriend chooses execution over collaboration. Deals are made and broken, relationships are forged and betrayed and lives are survived or destroyed as events spiral out of the characters’ control to the film’s inevitable tragic end. The scenario may be unique to Jewish history, but the moral ambiguity of the decisions forced on the characters and their blurred lines of loyalty are only too human.
Broken Lines, slated for a wider release in 2011, is lovingly filmed against the backdrop of our very own Finsbury Park. A young Jewish man, obsessed with the death of his father, the failure of his parents’ marriage and the trap of his own impending marriage, transfers his obsession to a young waitress, herself locked in a stunted relationship. The two lives are drawn together in a tight embrace as the characters struggle to break free of the past and to move forward into a brighter future.
This was an appropriate film to finish the series with because it was the least obviously ‘Jewish’ and the most obviously ‘human’ story. When I consider ‘Jewishness’ in the future, from crass Jewish jokes, to social upheaval in Israel and the Holocaust, I will remember that these are, above all, human lives.
The UK Jewish Film Festival is in London, 4-21 November 2010. On tour around UK January – March 2011. I saw Diplomat (Israel, 2009); Protektor (Czech Republic, 2009); and Broken Lines (UK/Canada/USA, 2008).