My Jewish Oeuvre
It was 1987. I was working as a documentary maker in television. A puzzle was eating away at me. It had dawned on me that I saw nothing on TV that reflected the lives of the ordinary Jewish folks I had grown up with. No characters in dramas or sitcoms. No documentaries. No British Lennie Bruce or Woody Allen. No nothing apart from Miriam Karlin’s character in The Rag Trade, an East End sweat-shop sitcom that had been out in the early sixties and reprised briefly in the seventies. And Jack Rosenthal’s Barmitzvah Boy. Why?
Yes there was stuff about Israel and the holocaust. Headline stuff. War, conflict, death. But that was it. To see my ‘ordinary’ Jewishness refracted back at me I had to look to America, the novels of Bellow, Roth or Malamud. British Jewishness wore a cloak of invisibility.
What’s more I had to admit that I had colluded in this state of affairs. I had made films on many social issues: unemployment, racism, disability, sexuality. I had followed personal journeys of self-discovery in TV series about psychotherapy and masculinity. Perhaps my underlying social justice values and my interest in questions of identity had Jewish roots. But I had yet explicitly to assert my Jewishness in my work.
I wasn’t the only one. The commissioning arms of the TV networks were well stocked with bright, ambitious Jewish men who I knew to be thoughtful and, by and large, progressive. They had, to a man (and they were all men at that point!), bought into the argument that the Jewish audience was a relatively small one, and they shouldn’t let their own origins influence their choice of what was best for the great British public.
I needed to explain myself to myself.
I started to read the work of the new British Jewish historians: Kushner, Cesarani and others. I learnt about the blood libel, the massacres and the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, and the readmission by Cromwell in 1656. We were here on sufferance. There was an implicit message, reinforced explicitly by the settled Jewish establishment during the major waves of immigration from Russian and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, that we needed to behave: to keep ourselves to ourselves, not rock the boat, not wash our dirty linen in public. We learnt to ‘pass’. To hide our noisy, passionate, hand-waving, immigrant selves and be good Brits, stiff upper lips and poker faces. Compared to America, a land of immigrants, the energy and vitality were squeezed out of us; all this reinforced by the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. Hitler’s invasion narrowly avoided, the threat froze us to our marrow.
Even my name was not mine. ‘Moscovitch’ had become ‘Morrison’, and — born at the end of the war — ‘Saul’, which my mother would have really liked to name me, became ‘Paul’. Safer, more English. I already had my conversion on the road to Damascus. (My voluble alter ego Saul Moscovitch comes to life in New York.)
My mother was to tell me this story, the story of my name, when I interviewed her for my first explicitly Jewish TV documentary series. The theme of ‘passing’ was to re-emerge centrally in my first feature film, Solomon and Gaenor.
In London I sang hymns in assembly and kept shtum, unnoticed, at the mention of Jesus. The Reform movement I grew up in during the fifties and early sixties seemed to me to be going through the motions. I know better now about some of the fine and thoughtful minds that were keeping a flame alive, of theological searching and insight. But, as a teenager, Jewish religious life seemed boring and without spirit. It wasn’t where the action was. I drifted away, as had my anarchist-leaning grandparents before me.
In my twenties and thirties, like many of my generation, I went on a thrilling, often awkward and painful journey via radical politics and feminism, into psychotherapy and self-exploration. Via Eastern meditation I found my way to a spiritual sense of myself — and ultimately home to Judaism. I compared the Hasidic masters and their courts to the human potential movement and realised that in my own tradition were already many of the values, insights and questions that I was exploring.
Israel had won the Six Day War. I had signed up to defend Israel but my joy was tempered even then by the images I saw on the news of humiliated Egyptian soldiers stumbling through the desert and by the blind triumphalism that drowned out the voices of those who saw an opportunity in victory to reach out to the enemy. Yet, undeniably, Jewish self-confidence was re-emerging, and taking many different shapes and forms. The black power movement had provided a model of another people — unable to ‘pass’ — who were confronting their internalised oppression, and finding pride amid their anger and sorrow. Jews took note and were themselves becoming louder and prouder. The Jewish renewal movement was finding its feet. I was engaging with a richer and more vibrant version of Jewish than I had previously known.
It was time to front up.
I proposed to Channel Four a series about British Jewish identity. My main purpose was to fill the screen with Jews, hundreds of Jews, different kinds of British Jews who could collectively tell this story, my story and theirs, and make it and us visible.
I also wanted to find a form through which to tell the story that would itself be Jewish. Working with Rabbi Howard Cooper, I proposed that the series follow the structure of the Jewish biblical myth: genesis, exile, exodus, wandering. I wanted to apply these big themes to our small and ordinary lives. Genesis would be broadly about Jewish families; Exile the story of our outsider status as British Jews; Exodus would look at various forms and shapes of Jewish liberation or renewal; and Wandering would be about the spiritual journeys of some very different contemporary Jews, looking to find their own inner promised lands. (In the event, this last film, which is suffused with a kind of poetic holy sensibility, proved too religious for even the religious department of Film Four. It was ok to talk about religion, but not to be religious). We would shoot each film in the season of the thematically relevant Jewish festival — Exodus in the spring around Passover, Wandering in the summer around Shavuot, etc.
To my huge surprise, Channel Four embraced the idea. I don’t think they really understood it, or its importance to me. But they went along with it, and for that I am ever grateful. It didn’t plan to do the traditional things an educational documentary is supposed to do: it didn’t have commentary, other than a few biblical quotes. It didn’t much contextualise. (Howard and I did a book which could cover all that stuff.) It let people speak for themselves. It didn’t try to ‘explain’ Jews and our rites and rituals in that patronising way I disliked, to a non-Jewish audience. I just said ‘here we are; this is our story; this is us’. It was to be like the Tanakh: stories of the generations, unmediated by explanation. Some people really got it, and have said it changed their lives. Other people passed it by.
It took a further year for Channel Four to find the money to make what became A Sense of Belonging. To fill the gap, still deeply immersed in my Jewish journey, I proposed a film to the BBC, about artists who had painted and drawn their way through the camps and ghettos of the Second World War, at great risk to their lives, both witnessing unutterable horror and, in their compulsion to make images against the odds, also affirming life and creativity.
Amid the anti-Semitic undercurrent that permeated my schooldays, the words of one of my teachers still rang in my ears, that the Jews had somehow brought the holocaust on themselves by not fighting back. I had lived for years with the shame of those words. The secret manufacture of these artworks was among the many uncounted forms of resistance that scholars were beginning to reveal. To assert these artists’ bravery was my small contribution to nailing that lie.
I undertook this project with trepidation. I had said to myself that I wasn’t ready to make a film about the holocaust. I was too aware of the impossibility: I felt humble, ashamed to apply the tricks of my trade to an event so insulting to the human spirit. I was very influenced by Claude Lanzman’s Shoah, which had recently been released, and eschewed editing and use of archive footage. I knew I would have to tell my story more conventionally for a BBC1 audience. But I drew from Lanzman’s minimalism, and restricted the footage to the interviews with surviving artists, the paintings and drawings themselves, and the contemporary material I shot myself, in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. I utilised only the music of Jewish composers, as much as possible from those who composed within the camps. There were no ‘experts’. There was scarcely any commentary.
These were good decisions. Survivors have told me that the film is true to their experience. I think that has everything to do with the integrity and immediacy of the artists’ work and the modesty with which they told their stories.
Making From Bitter Earth brought me in touch with a visceral rage and grief that I believe is part of our collective heritage, along with the deep-set fear that it could all happen again and that we need to keep our bags packed. It made me more compassionate about Jewish defensiveness, paranoia, greed and intransigence which mostly angers and shames me. These traits are totally understandable and largely useless, often provoking exactly the response which they mean to defend against. (The separation wall in Israel is the ultimate physical manifestation. I hate it, and know it to be ultimately fruitless and futile, but I recognise where it comes from. It will take a colossal amount of reassurance and firm insistence to take it down.) I was to unpick that defensive insularity in Solomon and Gaenor, where it invites the inevitable tragedy.
The transmission of A Sense of Belonging presaged a small flurry of works on British Jewish themes. There was Vadim Jean and Gary Sinyor’s movie Leon the Pig Farmer. On BBC1 there was Paul Mendelson’s sitcom So Haunt Me, with Miriam Karlin returning as the Jewish bubba ghost haunting a non-Jewish family. Howard Jacobson made Roots Schmoots and the bitterly comic Sorry, Judas for Channel Four.
Under the aegis of Dominique Green at the Jewish Film Foundation, Audrey Droisen and I initiated the Jewish Film-maker’s Group: a heterogeneous bunch mostly working in TV, including the wonderful Mira Hammermesh, Naomi Gryn, Luke Holland (who came to be one of the founders of the next generation Jewish Film Festival), Rex Bloomstein and Roy Ackerman. We presented our work to one another, ate cake, and asked ourselves the unanswerable question of whether we were Jewish film-makers, or Jews who made films. The group ran for a number of years and marked a moment in history, of self-definition, when to come out, if only to one another, as Jewish artisans seemed important.
Long into psychotherapy as a client and a part-time student, I completed a formal training at around this time and started a practice. My two trades sustain and complement one another, emotionally and financially. The therapy work keeps me grounded, ballast for the highs and lows and unending insecurity of working in film.
While I continued to make and produce documentaries, I was yearning to create my own dramas, rather than find them in the experience of others.
I wrote and directed some half-hour satiric dramas for Without Walls, the Channel Four arts strand. The first of these, Degas and Pissarro Fall Out, brought the two painters together in an imaginary TV studio not unlike that of the BBC’s Late Show, with a presenter not unlike Sarah Dunant, to debate their differences over the Dreyfus affair, which had sundered a close friendship. It was both a means of exploring anti-Semitism (Degas was the latent anti-Semite, Pissarro the Jew) and a way of commenting on the factory of daily TV production. It was fun to make, but it signalled my own impatience with television and the way in which it was moving.
I took a year off to write a feature screenplay, a fictionalised account of my own experience as a Jewish teenager on the first CND Marches from Aldermaston to London, being thrown into the weird and wonderful world of the bohemian English middle classes. In Education in reverse. It was a promising idea but over-long and clumsily structured and never saw the light of day.
I had begun my apprenticeship in writing for the movies. I learnt that good screenplays require that we push our stories to the limit. They require us not to be nice, not to compromise; they require us to be bold and wholehearted, whatever our genre.
All the stories I began embraced Jewish themes. I didn’t know how to write otherwise. The cloak of invisibility still hovered, and I was compelled to tear at it.
While researching A Sense of Belonging, I had come across the story of the Tredegar Riots. Immigrant Jews had arrived in the Welsh mining valleys in the boom years of the 1870s onwards, as peddlers, glaziers, and later small shopkeepers. In 1911, at the end of a long and unsuccessful strike, the impoverished mining communities of a number of villages had turned on the Jewish shops and purported Jewish landlords. It was the first and only recorded pogrom in post-medieval British history. The rioters torched homes and shops, and Churchill had eventually sent in the troops to maintain peace.
The juxtaposition of these two flinty, bible-fearing peoples in this harsh world struck me as fertile background for a love story. I put the Jewish family in a linen shop, like the one my grandmother had run, and made Solomon a peddler, selling wares from the shop village to village. Gaenor was a chapel girl from over the hills. Drawing on my understanding of hiding and secrecy, Solomon and Gaenor felt like it wrote itself.
Why didn’t you tell me?
This life, your real life!
Were you ashamed of me?
It was a tough shoot, tight for time, and the rain seemed incessant. We waded ankle-deep in mud. But there were magical coincidences which sustained us: we shot the marriage scene on the date of my and my wife’s own anniversary; the partner of one of our lead actors gave birth on the same day as Gaenor. When you are up against it, you look for signs that you have not been forsaken. We felt charmed.
We aimed to make not a pretty film but to find beauty in the bleakness, with a palette of blues and greys for the mining community. Such colour as there was, scarlet and green, was brought with the immigrant Jews from Europe. Musically, we built a score that had overtones of klezmer and of the baptist chapel, as well as borrowing from Arvo Part the repeated rhythmical phrases that drew us inexorably into the tragedy.
The film makes a statement about mixed-faith partnerships, and the prejudice against them. Solomon’s parents are harsh and rejecting of their grand child to be. I wanted to challenge the ingrained stricture to represent Jews only as nice and victims, for fear of ‘lending ammunition’ to anti-Semites. Among more traditionally-minded Jews, these felt at the time like small acts of subversion.
I was under some pressure to soften the ending. I’m glad that I resisted.
Solomon and Gaenor was nominated for an Oscar, which was both a continuation of the charm and utterly confusing. I spent a year travelling back and forth to LA having wonderfully positive meetings discussing projects that never happened and were never truly mine.
When eventually I returned to my own work, it was to a screenplay that I had begun earlier, and which featured the next generation of British Jewish immigrants, the refugees from middle Europe in the thirties. Rooted in a childhood fascination with the paraphernalia of cricket, it re-created the world I had grown up in, during the fifties and early sixties. I remembered my sweet little grandmother’s uncharacteristic anxiety and anger when the first Afro-Caribbean family moved in next door to her in Cricklewood. The cricket; the meeting of the two families over the fence; these were my starting points for what became the comedy drama Wondrous Oblivion.
We are not in charge of our stories. They create their own momentum. In writing Wondrous Oblivion I was obliged to transcend my habitual skepticism and permit my characters to change for the better. The Jewish family in particular: Stanley who ran a shop in the high street, Ruth his timid wife, and his 12-year old son David sent to a posh English prep school, told me that was what they wanted. As for the Jamaican family, cricket-loving Dennis and church-going Grace and their children who had moved in next door and built a cricket net in the garden, all they wanted was to be able to live their lives — to work, study, pray and play — without harassment.
It became structured as a coming of age movie. David comes up against his own cowardice, in betraying his Jamaican friend Judy to his new prep-school chums. He is challenged to change his priorities and make amends. What’s more, the rest of the Jewish family is required to grow up: Stanley to put his family before his work; Ruth to come out from under and develop a sense of her own worth. Finally, the narrow-minded community around them is shamed by Stanley into opening up, and to accepting the strangers in their midst.
As a result, Wondrous Oblivion gained a joyous ending, to some peoples’ discomfiture. I was able to utilise a bunch of my favourite upbeat ska and calypso tracks. Shot mostly in a studio, we managed to give it a subtly super-real, fairytale quality. I introduced cigarette cards of cricketers who moved. The magic was intrinsic to the movie itself, and not only in the experience of the making.
The coming of age movie is concealed behind what appears to be a traditional sports movie: the underdog courageously overcomes all obstacles to win the tournament for the team. David makes a different choice, and that makes for a different film. It’s a sleight of hand I relished as a writer, though it created some confusion for the film marketers.
At the heart of our diaspora experience, we butt up against the ‘other’, and have to negotiate difference. A skill we come to absorb necessarily as diaspora Jews is the art of empathy, to be able to put ourselves into another’s shoes. I’m proud that Afro-Caribbean Londoners experience Wondrous Oblivion as their own story, and that many Welsh chapel-goers experience Solomon and Gaenor as theirs.
Set at the cusp of Britain’s first tentative embrace of multi-culturalism, I sought in Wondrous Oblivion to touch on the effects of displacement in families who have been torn apart as refugees or migrants. Dennis’ daughter doesn’t recognise him when the children, who had been left behind in Jamaica, finally come to Britain to join their parents. Ruth, who came to Britain on the Kindertransport and spent her teens without a mother, tells Dennis, ‘No-one taught me to be a woman. I always get it wrong.’
In 2005 I developed this theme by writing and performing in a BBC radio play, Missing Olga, in which I gave myself the chance to meet my grandmother, who had died before I was born. I asked her to explain to me what had been the effect on her husband, my grandfather, of leaving his parents and eleven siblings behind in Russia in 1903, and never seeing them again. Judging from his letters, I don’t think he was ever quite the same person. She agreed with me. There was a quiet sadness in him that never quite left him, and through my father left its mark on me.
By then I was Jewed out. Jewish, schmoo-ish. I’d had Jewish coming out of my ears. I needed a break.
I attached myself to as non-Jewish a movie as I could imagine, a script about the love affair between Federico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali, who were students together in the Catholic and conservative Madrid of the twenties. The boulders dropped from my shoulders. Of course, its gay theme made it as hard to get off the ground as any other movie. But I had fun making it, and enjoyed the freedom that came from not having written it, and from it not being my world. It does have a recognisable intensity and poetic quality, and plenty of ambivalence and guilt. Does that make it any way Jewish? I’m not sure it matters. Little Ashes was released in the UK last year.
Now my slate is mixed. There are a couple of contemporary comedies in the pipeline, not explicitly Jewish. There’s a long-cherished film which grew out of my experience in Jewish/Israeli/Palestinian dialogue groups in the 1990s, when I experienced how hard it is to accept one another’s historical narratives, and how much we need to. It’s a thriller set in the mandate period, when British self-interest laid the ground for the ‘ruthless Jews’ within the national liberation struggle to generate the Palestinian tragedy.
I have ready a film I am yearning to shoot about the artist Charlotte Salomon, who painted her way through exile in the South of France during 1941-2. She told her life story growing up under the Nazis in a series of over 1000 incredibly vivid and powerful paintings. The process was a form of self-therapy for her, liberating her from her family history of depression. Having completed her work, which she titled Life? or Theatre, she was freed to fall in love with another refugee.
It’s a powerful story bringing together many themes that are close to me. We have a fine screenplay, and potentially a strong cast. But making movies from the heart, even with an eye to the market, is always an uphill struggle. In the current climate, conventional movie finance sources are more conservative than ever. Should any JQ readers with a passion for Charlotte Salomon have a bright idea about alternative sources, or might think to invest themselves, I’d be glad to put them in touch with my producers.
I don’t need to say that film is a collaborative process. Without dedicated producers, let alone the fine craftspeople and actors who have enhanced and made solid my dreams, none of these works would have seen the light of day.
At nineteen, I wanted to be a novelist. But I worried that the ordinary North-West London suburban Jewish life I had grown up in hadn’t provided me with enough raw material to fit me for the job. My parents were still together. There was food on the table. No divorce. No poverty. Where was the angst that could drive my work?
My concern was misplaced. I was to taste my own portion of life’s joys and tragedies soon enough. I had only to scratch the surface in and around me and there were enough stories to fill a library. I am proud and happy to have had the opportunity to share a few.
I recently had occasion to revisit a film I made as a young man about John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their ‘world peace’ days. I and a film crew had spent the best part of a couple of weeks with them. We achieved a certain intimacy, which the film reflects. Yoko had been much vilified, but I liked her, and them, and I liked their love story.
Looking back, they could have been a Jewish couple; he: mouthy, cruel, funny, self-lacerating, loving and idealistic; she: dreamy and mystical, inclined to abstraction, yet with a quiet practicality. Maybe that’s why they were so at home in New York.
The film was transmitted by the BBC and much of its material recycled in later compilations. I recognise in it some of the qualities that seem to run through my later movies, perhaps all my films: the intensity, the sadness, the joy, the mystery, the soulfulness. Is that Jewish? So help me, I have no idea.
Paul Morrison will be answering questions at a special Jewish Film Festival screening of Solomon and Gaenor at the Tricycle Theatre on June 23 at 8.30pm. Wondrous Oblivion and Little Ashes are available on DVD from the usual outlets, Solomon and Gaenor via firstname.lastname@example.org.