UK Jewish International Film Festival – my preview

The 20th UK Jewish International Film Festival gets underway this Saturday Nov 5 at BFI Southbank with the UK premiere gala of James Schamus’ Indignation (pictured), a superb, slow-burning Philip Roth adaptation.

I shouldn’t say too much, probably, as I’m honoured to be Head of the Jury on the Best Film competition this year and Indignation is one of the runners. Schamus himself is former head of Focus Features, wrote scripts for Ang Lee, and was a major player in the industry as an exec and an academic but now he’s taken the bull by the horns and made his first film as director.

He’s done a distinctive, witty, wise and powerful job, a film that feels like a Roth novel, but remaining a strong piece of cinema. Logan Lerman is terrific as New Jersey’s Messner, a keen college student in 1951 Ohio, taking on the Catholic Dean over compulsory chapel attendance.

He’s also mixed with a mixed-up blonde called Olivia Hutton, brilliantly played by Sarah Gadon, a sexually advanced society beauty with a suicidal streak. Messner’s mother does not approve. And as for his kosher butcher father, the whole thing is too much, what with the Korean War and troubles at the shop.

Schamus captures all this Americana turmoil perfectly – the film’s out on general release on Nov 19.


The Small World of Sammy Lee

Also at UKJIFF is a pre-release premiere for a lost London classic, The Small World of Sammy Lee, which stars Anthony Newley as Sammy Lee, a Soho strip club compere now desperately trying out schemes to come up with the money he owes some vicious gangsters.

Ken Hughes’ film oozes cool and sleaze in equal measure. The photography by the late Wolf Suschitzky is remarkable, conveying the bustle of the Soho streets from Berwick to Wardour and Old Compton, through various stages of day and night.

Robert Stephens excels as the oily club owner and Wilfred Bramble is the put-upon “dresser”. Lovely Julia Jones is the innocent come to town thinking she can save Sammy from himself, but this is a man caught in his own foibles.

I’ll write more on the film over the coming weeks, but the festival’s showing the newly restored version at the 606 Jazz Club, bringing its legendary Kenny Graham jazz score to the fore, music that was also lost to time until Jonny Trunk rediscovered it in a loft.

The whole thing is a wonderful, one-off event and we should really celebrate the revival and rediscovery of a true lost classic – dare I say it, it’s better than Alfie.

You can hear me talking to both James Schamus and Julia Jones in a great double bill on my regular show on BBC Radio London with Robert Elms from earlier this week (we’re on from 40 mins in onwards…).


The Tenth Man

Other festival highlights to recommend include The Tenth Man by Argentina’s Daniel Burman, the warmly comic story of a man returning to his religious roots in the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. It’s a unique look at a world you probably didn’t know existed (they say “meshugeneh” in Spanish, too!) and a beautifully told story of faith and tradition amid the bustle and hustle of a community charity shop.

You must catch The Last Laugh, a doc about taboo jokes, mainly around the Holocaust. What a stellar line-up of comedians: Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Larry Charles etc, discussing how far you can and can’t go in comedy. I love this sort of stuff.

The other docs definitely worth catching are Everything is Copy, a lovely tribute, directed by her son, to the late Nora Ephron (they’re also showing Heartburn, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, which is about Nora’s failing marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein).

Then there’s Josh Appignanesi’s wonderfully personal The New Man, a real-life, funny and thoughtful doc about Josh becoming a Dad – I’ll be talking to him and his long-suffering wife Devorah Baum at the premiere at The Phoenix cinema on Nov 9, so hope to see you there. I don’t know if the baby will be there.


Sand Storm

I’m very keen to see both Sand Storm, which won awards at Sundance and Locarno, and I hear great things about Forever Pure, a doc about Jerusalem’s football team signing Muslim players.

Meanwhile there’s the premiere of the two short films from the Pears Film Fund on whose selection committee I sit – I can’t wait to see what happened to the scripts and pitches we greenlit this year, a comedy called Mordechai and a doc called Memory Songs.

And I’ll be in conversation with some great actors on a FilmLab panel discussing the nigh-ineffable art of the performer  – Kim Bodnia, Burghart Klausner and Maureen Lipman join me. So join us.

I look forward to seeing you around what I know will be a really strong festival exploring so many different themes of what it means to be – not just Jewish – but alive in this most tricky of 21st centuries.

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