Fight­ing back to put an­ti­semitism on the ropes

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CIN­EMA STEPHEN AP­PLE­BAUM

GET­TING PEO­PLE to open their wal­lets for a first fea­ture is never easy, says ac­tor-turned film-maker David Leon, whose provoca­tive de­but, Ortho­dox, is play­ing in the UK Jewish Film Fes­ti­val. “You know no one is go­ing to give you that op­por­tu­nity on a sil­ver plate. So you have to find in­no­va­tive ways of work­ing around the sys­tem”.

He started by making a short version, as “a kind of pi­lot”, to give po­ten­tial in­vestors an idea of what the fea­ture­length movie would look and feel like. It worked. Ortho­dox stars Stephen Gra­ham as an Ortho­dox Jew called Ben­jamin who has alien­ated him­self from his com­mu­nity by be­com­ing a boxer. The film’s Ortho­dox Jewish back­drop could be re­garded as some­what niche, but Leon al­ways saw this as a strength.

“It was my in­ten­tion that it would be niche,” he says. “I think when you make a mi­cro-bud­get film like this, you have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to deal with sub­ject mat­ter that is niche, and prob­a­bly in an un­con­ven­tional way, be­cause it is the only thing that al­lows your story to stand out quite of­ten”

Leon was born in New­cas­tle and is Jewish on his fa­ther’s side. His re­li­gious up­bring­ing was “mod­er­ate”, with nei­ther par­ent forc­ing their dif­fer­ent point of view on him. “As a con­se­quence, it made me much more in­quis­i­tive,” he says. “And as I grew older, I be­came more in­trigued by the con­flicts that pre­sented. And there was con­flict when my mother and fa­ther got to­gether.”

He de­scribes him­self as “half-Jewish”, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion which is “a very per­sonal thing”, he says. He knows that, to the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity he is in no sense Jewish, and this in­formed some of the feel­ings sur­round­ing Ben­jamin's sit­u­a­tion in the film. A proud and ded­i­cated fam­ily man, he longs to be fully ac­cepted by his com­mu­nity, but the choices he has made in his life — in­clud­ing mar­ry­ing a sec­u­lar woman who con­verted — and his in­abil­ity to meet the stan­dards of ob­ser­vance de­manded of him, have landed him be­tween worlds.

His trou­bles be­gin when he de­fies his fa­ther and takes up box­ing, fol­low­ing a vi­o­lent an­ti­semitic at­tack. Leon wit­nessed such an as­sault on a Cha­sidic boy by “sec­u­lar kids” in Stam­ford Hill. The fact that it hap­pened in lib­eral, cos­mopoli­tan Lon­don made it seem all the more “ar­chaic and bar­baric,” he says.

“The boy was wear­ing his be­liefs on his sleeve. We don’t all dress in a way that projects that for the world to see, and that’s a brave thing. I won­dered whether [the at­tack] would make him more in­tent on his val­ues, or whether it could make him ques­tion them.”

Leon spent 18 months in Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties in New­cas­tle, Gateshead, and north Lon­don do­ing back­ground re­search and says he learned that “the idea of one man in­flict­ing pain upon an­other was frowned upon in the con­text of the Jewish faith.”

He found this in­ter­est­ing. In the early 1900s, Jewish men used box­ing as a way to es­cape from be­ing part of an un­der­class, and to as­sim­i­late and con­front an­ti­semitism. The sport turned them into he­roes. But times change and Ben­jamin’s re­ac­tion has to be seen in the wider con­text of the chal­lenges now fac­ing a com­mu­nity whose cul­tural co­he­sion, Leon seems to be suggest­ing, is un­der threat from moder­nity.

“The in­ten­tion was never to make an ob­ser­va­tion on the re­li­gion,” he ex­plains. “It was much more about the cul­ture. And not just about Jewish cul­ture but about 21st-cen­tury cul­ture and the de­mands that are placed on peo­ple within the Ortho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity as a con­se­quence.”

The com­mu­nity is not mono­lithic but com­posed of in­di­vid­u­als. And while they may all live un­der the same um­brella of shared be­liefs, “some will be­lieve in cer­tain things more ex­tremely than oth­ers,” says Leon. “I think what that does — where we have ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion at the touch of a but­ton — par­tic­u­larly to kids and those that have less strength of char­ac­ter, or those that are more in­quis­i­tive, is present a real con­flict that I think that the Ortho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity has never had be­fore.”

Ben­jamin's predica­ment — in­spired by some­one Leon met — al­lows the film to re­veal some of the dif­fer­ent sides of the com­mu­nity, which is por­trayed hon­estly, seem­ingly ac­cu­rately, and with­out sen­ti­men­tal­ity. It of­fers peo­ple love and se­cu­rity, but can be tough on those who don’t ob­serve its prac­tices.

“That was my ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Leon. “The com­mu­nity can be a very safe en­vi­ron­ment and some­where peo­ple feel very close, and there was a real sense of peo­ple look­ing af­ter one an­other. But it’s fair to say the de­mands placed on the in­di­vid­ual are very re­stric­tive and un­re­lent­ing. And I think if you don’t toe the line, you can be cast aside and os­tracised.”

Many do meet the de­mands, of course. For Leon, as a film-maker, how­ever, “those who fall through the cracks and fall by the way­side” are more in­ter­est­ing. That said, he stresses that he came away from the process of making Ortho­dox hav­ing en­coun­tered a “beau­ti­ful feel­ing of be­ing will­ing to for­give. There is an un­remit­ting at­ti­tude to­wards for­give­ness, and I think that is some­thing that the Jewish faith, par­tic­u­larly, upholds.”

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