Festival used to take its pick from 20 films - now it is over 600


THE phrase "mighty oaks from little acorns grow" can definitely be applied to UK Jewish Film Festival founder Judy Ironside.

When she launched the festival, nearly 20 years ago, Judy could have hardly envisaged just how big it would become.

The festival's 2016 programme will begin tomorrow.

Eighty films will be screened at 20 venues in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds and Nottingham.

In the capital, tomorrow night, the opening night gala will feature the American film Indignation.

The Manchester premiere on Sunday (6.30pm) at Cineworld Didsbury will be The People vs Fritz Bauer.

It is all a long way from the festival's beginnings in Judy's home town of Brighton in 1997.

"I had been to a kabbala weekend and, while I didn't pursue kabbala, I met someone there which would lead me to setting up the Brighton Jewish Film Festival," Judy told me.

"This gentleman, Nigel Berman, called me a few weeks later with the idea to set up a Jewish film festival.

"I was immediately enthused because I love films and I have always been passionate about people exchanging - and listening to - stories."

Judy and Nigel set about acquiring films to screen, but it wasn't plain sailing.

She recalled: "At the time, there was only one major Jewish festival, which was in San Francisco.

"It felt like 1967 rather than 1997 because we were not using computers.

"The revolution for us was when we started to use a computer as a way to acquire films.

"In that first year we maybe had around 20 films to choose from. That number has increased, in the last seven to eight years to around 600."

Nigel left the project after the first year, but the festival continued to grow.

Because of the relatively small Jewish community in Brighton, a few years later Judy set up the festival in London.

She said: "David Kustow, who went on to become our chairman, came to Brighton and brought Jan and Michael Grabiner with him (the Grabiners are now among the festival's sponsors).

"They said we should set up the festival in London, which we did. We didn't move fully to London until around 2003.

"It was taking off there and I needed to meet sponsors face-to-face. The balance tipped. We were not going to go back to Brighton."

The 70-year-old, who still lives in Brighton, was raised in the town by her parents, Rachel and Jack Mazzier.

The surname is Latvian in origin, while her mother's family came from Holland.

"When I was growing up, there were five synagogues in Brighton and a flourishing Jewish community," Judy explained.

"We had a Maccabi club, which I was a member of, and I attended cheder.

"My parents were married in the Orthodox synagogue."

Judy spent four years as a secretary at the University of Sussex before undertaking training to teach drama to young people with disabilities.

She worked for many years as a drama therapist, mostly with children with special needs.

"That's an interesting link for what I went on to do," Judy said. "I am really passionate about stories and people sharing them.

"Film is such a powerful way for people to do that. It was what I was doing with drama therapy. It was all about communication."

The festival's rise coincided with the sharp trajectory of Israeli films, which began to break into the international market.

"That has to be one of the most interesting things," Judy continued, "seeing Israeli films really take their place on the international screen."

Numerous Israeli flicks are shown at the festival, yet Judy takes care to ensure that her team creates a balanced programme.

"There is no point in screening 30 documentaries on the Middle East," she explained.

"There are people interested in that, but that is not all they want to watch.

"We look to have feature films, drama, documentaries and the best of short films.

"We also want to encourage young, new talent worldwide."

That encouragement comes in the form of the Pears Short Film Fund, which she established in 2007.

"We offer two lots of 10,000 for filmmakers to develop films with Jewish themes," Judy said.

"It is wonderful for them to have guidance and for their films to be shown at our festival and be picked up by other festivals around the world.

"Two of the films being shown in Manchester, Mordechai and Memory Songs, were both made thanks to the Pears Short Film Fund.

"We receive around 60 to 70 applications every year."

Although the festival lasts three weeks, the team are working on its programme all year.

Judy said: "We have a programming group which receives films all the time and it completes film evaluation forms after it has watched them.

"The group meets from March to June, when our submission process closes.

"The major ones are watched by Nir Cohen (film programmer), Michael Etherton (chief executive) and myself.

"We start to sculpt the festival's next programme. It is a huge amount of work and a huge process.

"It is basically a tapestry of film watching.

"Michael will go to the Cannes Film Festival and I will go to the Berlin or Jerusalem ones, as well."

Of the new wave of Jewish films, she said: "I think there is a lot more street cred in being Jewish and more people are interested in Jewish culture.

"We have become more mainstream and less ghettoised.

"We are putting films out there which are opening up Jewish culture to the non-Jewish community.

"One of our tag lines is, 'You don't have to be Jewish'.

"I believe that when we share our stories through the powerful medium of film, we grow respect and understanding between people and cultures."

One of Judy's initiatives is the Holocaust Memorial Day Educational Screenings, at Manchester's HOME.

Mainly non-Jewish schoolchildren watch a Shoah-themed film, followed by a talk from a survivor.

"I am amazed at the power of film to bring the history and stories of the Holocaust to school students of all cultures and denominations," Judy said.

"Many of these young people had little or no grasp of the events of the Holocaust, despite the subject being part of the National Curriculum.

"When we began to bring films to Manchester, it was really important to me to bring this annual event for young people to this culturally-diverse city.

"The children become completely absorbed in the story and they take on-board more than a dry set of facts.

"I have seen them come up to a survivor after the screening in tears, just wanting to reach out."

A decade ago, Judy assisted and mentored staff in creating the first Zagreb Jewish Film Festival and was also instrumental in helping with the first Amsterdam Jewish Film Festival in 2001.

Five years ago, Judy also initiated the Geneva International Film Festival. It is now firmly established as the first Jewish film festival in Switzerland.

"Alan Howard, our president at the time, was living in Geneva and I asked him if he would like a Jewish film festival there," Judy remembered.

"It has been a wonderful success there. It is a real treat to get Geneva's Jewish and non-Jewish communities together to watch the films."

In 2013, Judy was awarded an MBE for services to UK film and Jewish culture.

"It was exciting to go to Buckingham Palace, where I met Prince Charles," she said.

"He was interested in the festival and asked me about Holocaust education."

Judy has been married to Kenyan-born Leslie, a child psychologist, for nearly 30 years.

They have a daughter together, while Judy has three sons from a previous marriage and Leslie has a son from a previous marriage.

The couple have seven grandchildren.

Because of Judy's devotion to film, a cinema trip can feel like a busman's holiday.

She said: "When we go to the cinema, Leslie always thinks it is hilarious because I will count the number of people in the screen.

"I can be quite obsessional about it!"

Unlike many other Jewish or Israel-themed events, the festival had not faced any anti-Zionist protests - until two years ago.

During the Israel-Gaza conflict of that summer, London's Tricycle Theatre refused to host the festival.

The theatre later offered a U-turn, but the damage had been done.

Judy said: "It was our London home till then, although, luckily, we were showing films in other cinemas. We have moved on, though.

"Our audience was subsequently clear that they did not want us to go back to that theatre and we have listened to them."

When it comes to her Judaism, she describes herself as secular, but celebrates the High Holy Days.

Judy continued: "I am hugely interested in the stories of Judaism - I am a devotee of Jewish culture.

"Through the festival, I have had the most amazing Jewish education over the past 20 years."

She is also an ambassador of The Forgiveness Project, a charitable organisation which explores forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution through real-life human experience.

As for the festival, Judy believes it has a lot to offer, such as continually encouraging filmmaking on Jewish themes in the UK.

"Michael is always bringing in new ideas and we are happy with the way it is developing," she said.

"We are also looking to reach out to South America and South Africa and maybe help start Jewish film festivals over there, too."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph