BFI launches landmark Jewish Britain on Film collection

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BFI launches landmark Jewish Britain on Film collection
A scene from the 1934 film ‘Jew Suss’. Courtesy British Film Archive.

LONDON.- BFI released Jewish Britain on Film, a landmark collection of 60 newly digitised films, spanning over 100 years, with films dating back to 1905. Jewish Britain on Film uncovers insights, injustices and hidden histories across a century of Jewish heritage on British screens, bringing together records of Jewish life across the UK, from intimate home movies depicting family celebrations, to artists work confronting the 20th century Jewish experience in drama and documentary, charting changing attitudes both within and outside the community, exploring issues of observance, identity and assimilation in films such as Britain’s Jews (1965) Some of My Best Friends (1969) and Simcha (2000).

Jewish Britain on Film is the latest instalment from the BFI’s successful Britain on Film project. Having previously released online collections celebrating the history and lives of Black British, South Asian British and LGBT communities on film, this new collection builds upon Britain on Film’s unique and richly diverse record of the UK’s collective screen heritage over the last century. Jewish Britain on Film is available online via BFI Player, mostly for free drawn from the collections of the BFI National Archive and the UK’s Regional and National Film and Television Archives. Since Britain on Film’s launch in 2015 there have been over 41 million video views online, with people accessing our film heritage via BFI Player and social media channels, 97% of which are free. By 2018, thanks to National Lottery funding and the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to the present day will have been digitised and made available to view as part of Britain on Film, via an interactive map.

Jewish Britain on Film features some of the earliest surviving depictions of Jewish characters in British cinema, offering a disturbing insight into anti-Semitic representation of the era as seen in The Robber and the Jew (1908) and The Antique Vase (1913). On screen prejudice was later tackled head-on, with a number of newsreels and rare home movies documenting the anti-fascist and fascist movements of the 1930s, covering clashes between protestors at the Battle of Cable Street (1936) (Screen Archive South East), a key event in the history of the British left and resistance to fascism, as well as troubling scenes of Nazi-saluting crowds at Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists March October 3rd 1937. The collection also looks at the various ways in which UK Jewry has supported Jews young and old, from those fleeing persecution, The Wicked One - What Does He Say? (1934) and seeking refuge in a new country, British Paramount News No.1532 (1945) by providing charitable welfare to vulnerable members of the wider community through education, Chief Rabbi’s Emergency Council (1947), health and housing, Cast us Not Out (1969).

As a record of the 20th century the collection obviously tackles the trauma of conflict and war, but it also shines a spotlight on resilience and celebrating the strength of community. Here you can also drop in on joyous weddings from the 1920s to the 1980s, Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel and Mr. Solly Gerschcowit (1925), Wedding of Thelma and Danny, 11th August 1946 (North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University), Lynne’s Wedding (1980) (Yorkshire Film Archive) as well as colourful snapshots of everyday family life at work, rest and play.

Through early comedy shorts, rare newsreel footage and local television news reports, documentaries, charity appeals contemporary short films, experimental work produced by the BFI and British-made historical epic, the collection paints a portrait of Jewish life across the UK and Northern Ireland, with films from Regional Archive partners; Screen Archive South East, East Anglian Film Archive, North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University, Yorkshire Film Archive and Northern Ireland Screen as well as the BFI’s National Archive collections. From Robert Vas’s record of the ‘lost’ streets of London’s traditionally Jewish East End in his classic documentary, The Vanishing Street (1962) including the film’s raw material, to an insider’s view of local Jewish communities living in Manchester, Autumn in Delamere (1969) (North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University), Leeds, Sharonah Dance and Modern Food Store (1975) (Yorkshire Film Archive) and Belfast’s Jewish Community in Ulster (1966) (Northern Ireland Screen) identity is explored within a wider British cultural context.

On making these films accessible to new audiences, BFI National Archive Curator Simon McCallum says: “It’s been a privilege to bring together this exploration of the experiences and contributions of Britain’s vibrant Jewish community across the turbulent 20th century, alongside the evolving representation of Jews in British cinema. This collection uncovers some painful and troubling moments, and documents times of immense change, but is also full of joyous snapshots of Jewish life in all its diversity, from the secular to the orthodox.”

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