BY SIMON YAFFE
IT’S said that life imitates art. And that has certainly been the case for film director Josh Appignanesi.
The affable Londoner reflected his search for his Jewish identity in his hit 2006 film Song of Songs.
And, earlier this year, The New Man followed Josh and his wife Devorah Baum as they turned the camera on themselves following their journey to becoming parents.
The 42-year-old is acutely aware that the British film industry, as is the case with many creative industries, is on shaky ground.
“It is easy to winge, but the film industry here is in flux,” Josh told me. “Suddenly, companies like Netflix have come along with a billion dollars to spend.
“People are going to the cinema less because there is so much high-quality stuff in their living rooms.
“I know a lot of people in the creative industries are having to do more things to make ends meet. It’s the same for filmmakers.”
The British film scene was less frenetic when Josh was starting his career.
While reading anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge, Josh picked up a camera and made a documentary for his dissertation.
He went to Jordan to film a nature reserve which improved some people’s lives, while impacting on others.
“I realised I wanted to control the material a bit more, so I made a few short films,” Josh said.
“I had no formal training, but went on courses for screen writing.”
His first feature film, Song of Songs, tells of a devoutly Orthodox Jewish young woman (Natalie Press), who tries to bring her estranged and secular brother back into the fold.
It was a story which resonated with Josh.
Raised in north London, his mother, the writer Lisa Appignanesi, was born Elzbieta Borensztejn in Poland in 1946, before moving with her parents to Paris and then Montreal.
The majority of Josh’s maternal family were murdered in the Holocaust.
Lisa met Montreal-born writer Richard, the son of Italian Catholic parents, in Canada.
Josh explained that he was raised in a culturally Jewish — but not practising — family.
He continued: “Dad feels very Jewish — he’s got the family thing going on and that North American sense of humour which is associated with Jewishness.”
The idea for Song of Songs, which won a special commendation for Best British Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, came from meeting Devorah at a party.
“There was a culture clash as Devorah was very Orthodox and observant at the time,” Josh remembered. “The people at the party were quite anti-religion, as I was.
“Devorah and I had an argument and I soon realised that she was much more intelligent than me.
“It was the beginning of my immersion into Orthodoxy, through her lens.
“I didn’t realise that religious life was compatible with an intellectual life.”
Josh’s next big project was 2010’s The Infidel, written by comedian and author David Baddiel, which he directed and script edited.
It tells of a secular Muslim man Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili), who discovers that he was born Jewish and was given up for adoption at birth.
With the help of black cab driver, American Leonard Goldberg (Richard Schiff), Mahmud tries to understand the Jews and their culture and religion.
“We made a conscious effort not to make it too cheesy,” Josh said.
“The story for The Infidel is uncommon because unlike most multicultural comedies about assimilation, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it is not about a person and a mainstream culture.
“It is about a person from one ethnic community and another ethnic group.
“There is an originality to it as I also didn’t want it to be ‘oh we can all be friends in the end’ kind of thing.”
More than stereotyping Jews, Josh was concerned about the film’s representation of Muslims.
“At that time, there hadn’t been a comedy about Muslims in that way, attacking fundamentalism while also celebrating everyone else,” he added.
Josh has become more aware of his Jewish identity, stating he feels “less vexed about it and more engaged”.
He added: “When you are in your teens and 20s, you have these big questions.
“Now I have found a middle ground and have become more interested and open compared to how I had been.
“From her perspective, Devorah has relaxed a bit, too. We do Friday night dinners and the High Holy Days and it is nice for the kids.”
Talking of children — Josh and Devorah are parents to Manny and Isaiah — the pair made The New Man after another project fell through.
“It became apparent that there was a story in front of us and quite a big one,” Josh said.
“We had been trying for a long time to have kids through reproduction technologies.
“We spoke to friends and asked them to tell us all the things we didn’t know about having kids and recorded our reactions on camera. Eventually, Devorah became co-director.
“There were certain issues which we were unsure as whether to film, so we paused the filming for stuff which we became upset about.
“Hundreds of thousands of couples go through IVF, but we didn’t want to make it a social issue film.
“Making it let me put a frame around things and a purpose when things felt a bit purposeless. I think Devorah liked that and was encouraged.
“The editing process was long — that is where we had to make the real decisions about what was going to be shown and what was too private for people to see.”
Devorah did become pregnant and gave birth to Manny, who is now three.
And, last year, she fell pregnant again, with Isaiah.
Josh and Devorah, a lecturer in English literature and critical studies at the University of Southampton, received a grant from the medical charity Wellcome Trust to help finance the film and also received support from the Picturehouse Cinemas chain and the UK Jewish Film Festival.
As for parenthood, Josh said it has changed him “more than anything I can think of”.
He explained: “It is the single biggest life change after leaving school and becoming an adult. I can only spout cliches about it.
“It is a huge test and a huge commitment and being a parent changes from month to month.
“It definitely puts the pressure on and it is almost easier to talk about the negatives rather than the positives because the positives are a whole new subject.
“I am feeling grateful now, but I found the first year really tough.”
Josh is currently working on his next film, Female Human Animal, about his friend, Mexican Jewish artist Chloe Aridjis.
“Chloe curated an exhibition on Leonora Carrington at the Tate,” he said. “The film uses reality as a leaping-off point and turns into a romantic thriller.
“Chloe meets a guy who is mad, bad and dangerous to know.
“She pursues him, though, so it is a little like the Hitchcock tale of obsession.
“It is the story of a creative women who is stymied as she wants more from life.
“The whole story mirrors Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst when they had a torrid affair.
“I know Chloe and she has a real cinematic vibe to her.”
He is hoping to get the film into a number of international festivals, with an eye on releasing it next year.
Knowing how unpredictable the film industry can be, Josh, who also leads workshops at the London Film School and has taught at the Met Film School, is also in demand to make commercials.
He has directed adverts for cookies and cars — and while a new Jaguar wasn’t delivered to the Appignanesi home, boxes of cookies were.
“The house is filled with them,” Josh laughed. “Pretty much every director I know has to do a range of stuff, otherwise it is impossible.
“Films are a really big vehicle in which so many people have to say yes or no to, but you can’t really depend on it for your bread and butter, even if you are going to get a big pay cheque.”
joshappignanesi.com and follow him on Twitter @JoshAppFilm