The Last Tribe (dir. Simon Glass, 2011, 70 mins). Premiered in the Leeds International Film Festival, screened at the Hyde Park Picture House, 17th November 2011.
People often assume that I am Jewish because – as one of my secular Jewish friends once put it – I have a big nose, wear glasses and wave my hands about when I talk. Watching Simon Glass’s beautifully constructed documentary about Jewish people in Leeds, I was pleased to switch my identity with the humorous, compassionate, thoughtful and resilient people on screen.
This is a documentary which diverges from the genre in several ways. The most obvious is its arty touch of using an actor (Ben Casper) to depict the arrival at the turn of the Nineteenth Century of an early migrant from the East – Lithuania, or Poland, or Russia. This ‘wandering Jew’ picks his way through the city centre, into Chapeltown, and finally to a synagogue further north in the city. In a poignant moment that reminds us of the solidarity migrants often (but not always) feel toward one another, he helps a similarly bewildered stranger, a Kurdish immigrant (played by Ali Midea). This nice anachronism calls attention to the new victims of persecution in the city today. In contrast with the loquacious Jews on screen (Simon Glass recorded 40 hours of interviews), these scenes are silent, with the immigrants simply using an address on a scrap of paper as their means of seeking direction.
Then Glass defies convention by making a film about Jews with almost no mention of religion. This is daring. The film’s underlying problematic is who are the Leeds Jews and what’s happening to them? The answer, insofar as the twenty or so speakers are concerned, seems to be: ‘We are a people with a history of religious persecution and hardship, whose parents, through their sheer hard work and intelligence, gave us the platform for economic progress and social integration’.
Left hanging somewhere in the balance is what exactly it means to be a Jew today. Some interviewees emphasise the vibrancy of the Jewish culture and community in the city – and when a Rabbi is speaking we get an impression of the role of faith in producing this communal identity. But the statistics, referred to by more than one speaker, show a decline in numbers of people in Leeds who label themselves as Jews from about 30,000 around 1900 to about 6,000 today. Just as the statistics showing that only about 4% of Christians regularly attend church are used to ‘prove’ the UK is a secular society, when about 70% of Brits say they believe in God, this film’s statistics hide the more interesting fact that lots of people who don’t believe in God quite happily embrace ‘their’ Jewish culture.
My friend Anthony Clavane speaks to this paradox in the film. He says that losing our Jewish identity is the price we pay for integration. Unlike Leslie Silver, who says outright that he’s Jewish but without faith, Anthony doesn’t say whether or not he is a believer. The clever thing about this film is that it almost suggests that the question is irrelevant. Clavane’s marvelous book about Leeds United movingly celebrates his Jewish family roots, and elaborates on the wonderfully positive role Jews have played in making the city of Leeds. Does it really matter whether he believes or not?
Many of my other friends might be described as Jewish, and British, and secular – marked, as we all are, by ‘plural identities’. Some say they are atheists but use regular attendance at their synagogue as a cultural resource. Often they have migrant histories one or two generations back but their lives have never been determined by that fact. They might cook in their mother’s way and their language is enriched by Yiddish expressions, but that is sufficient. One says she feels Jewish, even though her Mum is Catholic (her Dad is historically Jewish). Wearing this heritage proudly, but so lightly, is an example to us all.
This is a film brimming with character. The two ladies who are clearly the deepest of friends but who equally clearly don’t agree about anything provoked some affectionate laughs. The interviewees are characters of varied social status who exhibit a deep humility, ever grateful to their parents, and to Britain. Their pride in the city and in Britain will come as a surprise only to those who know nothing about the city or the country.
The last way in which this film breaks with the conventions of its genre is that it exhibits more than the respect for its subjects you find in all good documentaries. This film brims with love. (There is none of the sentimentality some documentaries suffer from.) The director and the co-producer (Harvey Ascott) are young men brought up in this community, no doubt thoroughly ‘integrated’, and the film looks something like an homage to their families and forbears. It’s all the better for that. We need similar films about the other migrants who’ve made Leeds: the Irish, the Asians and the African-Caribbeans, for a start. And if this striking film could become a vehicle for more dialogue among and between these settlers, and with the other citizens of Leeds, it would serve an even bigger cause.
[For further information about this film, here are the contact details:
Glass & Glass Pictures Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 07979 381 408]