Jewish cinema has landed

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This year's UK Jewish Film Festival kicks off tomorrow with The Debt, a Mossad thriller starring Helen Mirren. Elisa Bray looks forward to a bumper fortnight of movies

In a trailer for the 14th UK Jewish Film Festival, famous faces including Maureen Lipman, David Baddiel, Davina McCall, Boy George, Al Murray and Graham Norton are filmed telling a Jewish joke. Here goes. Mrs Cohen calls the classified line of The Jewish Chronicle. "Morris Cohen's dead", she says. "That's it?" asks the classified manager. "Yes," says Mrs Cohen. "But", urges the man from the JC, "you're entitled to six words. You get three more. And they're free." Mrs Cohen says she will think about it. Finally she rings back, having decided on her three extra words: "Morris Cohen's dead; Volvo for sale."

The film's creator, the actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, the first ambassador for the festival, aimed to find the "cheesiest Jewish joke imaginable". She asked the Jewish and non-Jewish interviewees if they thought it was funny and whether Jewish humour was exclusive to being Jewish. Baddiel found the joke anti-Semitic; Jay Rayner thought it was rotten; Lipman found it very funny indeed.

Judy Ironside, the founder and director of the festival, says: "What we try to do is look at how to bring in new audience members, so we're not just connecting with Jewish people but with a very diverse audience. We have a diverse range of cinemas and I think the programming of the films also reaches a wide audience."

The highlight of a superb line-up will be the opening night film. In something of a coup, the festival has secured the first European screening of the highly-anticipated thriller The Debt, which stars Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. Directed by John Madden, with a script reworked from a low-budget Israeli film by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, it tells the story of three young Mossad agents who go on a secret mission to capture and kill a Nazi war criminal in the 1960s. Thirty years later, they are found out. "It's sensational," says Ironside. "A real edge-of-the-seat blockbuster with a very serious theme as well. It's a great honour for us to be opening with it."

The Debt follows last year's premiere of the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, which opened the festival at the Swiss Cottage Odeon.

For this year's festival, 66 films were chosen from more than 350 entries. The successful films will be screened at 10 cinemas in London, including the Tricycle in Kilburn, the British Film Institute, Ciné Lumiere in Kensington and the Barbican. There will be 47 UK premieres and the films have been drawn from 16 countries.

One such UK premiere will be that of The Round Up (La Rafle), which is based on the mass arrest and round-up in the Paris velodrome of 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, by the French police in July 1942. A box-office hit in France,The Round Up stars Jean Reno, Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) and, amazingly, a real-life survivor who is now 80 years old.

Other highlights include the bitter-sweet documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which follows the American comedian as she continues her career in her mid-seventies, and Broken Lines, a London-set tale of illicit love affairs featuring Olivia Williams and Paul Bettany.

The festival also showcases new talent. Most intriguing is A Jewish Girl in Shanghai – a Chinese animated film based on Wu Lin's graphic novel about the Holocaust. It tells the little-known story of "Little Vienna", an area of China's most populated city in which some 30,000 Jewish refugees sought shelter during the Second World War. Elsewhere, the producer/director Leifer brothers, Sam and Teddy, will screen The Honeymoon Suite, one of this year's two winners of the £10,000 Pears Foundation Short Film Fund. The short, about the awkward early steps of an arranged marriage, was written by the actress Alexis Zegerman (who featured in Mike Liegh's Happy-Go-Lucky) and stars the comedian Tim Key. In 2008, the Short Film Fund was won by Sydney Turtlebaum, starring Derek Jacobi, which went on to be long-listed for an Oscar.

This year's comedy theme, signalled by the "So, Mrs Cohen..." joke, informs a new Comedy Clash event, in which Shazia Mirza and Josh Howie will ask whether comedy can and should make a difference in tackling racism and prejudice. Another event will see Oberman, Baddiel and David Schneider discuss films such as The Infidel, Leon the Pig Farmer and Borat.

Ironside says: "We look at how humour relates and opens up issues of racism. It challenges Jewish and Muslim stereotypes as well as delving into the darker cultural recesses of their identities with everything we do."

Among the comedies on offer will be the UK premiere of Arab Labour, from an Israeli series by the writer Sayed Kashua. And of course, no comedy strand worth its salt is without a Woody Allen film – a screening of Love and Death completes the bill.

Just how relevant is a Jewish film festival? Ironside says: "It always amazes me. Each year we get sent upward of 350 new films with a Jewish theme. It continues to amaze me that so many are being made with some connection to Jewish history and culture worldwide. There seems to be an enormous interest in films around the theme of Jewish stories. There's a very rich scene and if anything it's growing. It's ever-relevant."

The UK Jewish Film Festival opens tomorrow with a gala screening of 'The Debt' at Vue West End, London WC2, 7.30pm, and runs until 21 November (

Kris Thykier: The Debt

A few years ago in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to come across an Israeli film called 'Ha-Hov'. The DVD stopped every few minutes and it took me three hours to watch. It was both fabulous and frustrating.

Before long Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn set about writing a draft of a script based on it. The finished film, 'The Debt' has dramatic complexity, but it's also an out-and-out thriller. I grew up on early-Seventies political thrillers like 'Three Days of the Condor'. To work on a film that harks back to such psychological thrillers was a treat.

I have to give credit to the director, John Madden, who attracted a great cast, including Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington (left, middle) and Marton Csokas (near left). Jessica Chastain (far left), who plays the younger version of Mirren's character, is an incredible find. She's now set to star in several big films including 'The Tree of Life' with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Penn has said that she is the greatest actor of her generation.

We shot a few weeks in Israel, three weeks in Ealing Studios and the rest in Hungary. We wanted the heat and light of Israel to contrast with the claustrophobia of 1960s East Berlin – but sometimes that was easier said than done. There's a scene in which the Mossad agents return to Israel, having completed their mission. Because of our schedule, we had to shoot it in a disused military airport in Budapest. It was February, we had 4inches of snow and it was minus 18C. Our actors nearly caught pneumonia, but thanks to the wonders of technology we somehow created the illusion of Israel in the sweltering heat.

One of the producers of 'Ha-Hov', Eitan Evan, came on board to work with us. The original film cost $900,000 and was hamstrung by its budget. Thanks to Miramax's backing we were able to take that fantastic story and give it scale. What's more, Matthew Vaughn came up with a brilliant twist... but I don't want to give that away.

Kris Thykier is the producer of 'The Debt', which is released in February 2011

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