Perhaps no one in the film world is a more logical guest for the 8th Women’s
International Film Festival in Rehovot, which is running now, than West is West
producer Leslee Udwin.
She was born in Tel Aviv (her family has been here
for six generations), has worked both in front of and behind the camera and so
has great insight into women’s issues in cinema, and she is one of the leading
producers in the British independent film world.
Ordering in Hebrew at a
Jerusalem café, she speaks with great pride of an ancestor who raised money to
build housing for the poor in the capital’s Nahalat Shiva area, pronouncing the
place names in a lovely British accent. Although she moved as a child from
Israel to South Africa, Udwin has made her home in England for her adult
The social conscience that drove her forefathers to raise money to
help the poverty-stricken is very prominent in Udwin and the films she has
Her latest movie, West is West, will be shown today at the
Women’s Film Festival (Sunday, November 13) and at the Jerusalem Cinematheque
tomorrow (Monday, November 14) at 9 p.m. It’s a sequel to the ground-breaking,
wildly popular East is East
, which was released in 1999 and became an audience
and critical favorite all over the world, winning the Alexander Korda Award for
Best British Film at the BAFTAs in 2000. The film told the story of the Khans, a
mixed British-Pakistani immigrant working class family, dominated by their
patriarch, George (the distinguished Indian actor Om Puri), a devout Muslim who
tried to arrange marriages for his children.
“I fell in love with East is
when I saw it,” she says, speaking of the original, semi-autobiographical
play by Ayub Khan-Din. “It floored me. Although I was an Israeli Jew, that was
my family. That devout Muslim father was my father. It was an absolute mirror of
the attitudes I grew up with.”
Realizing that it had great potential if
she could identify with it so strongly, she pushed Khan-Din to turn it into a
“I always knew there would be a sequel,” she says, but it
took years until Khan-Din was ready to write West is West
. In the new film, the
family returns to Pakistan, where the adult children try to come to terms with
their roots and George is confronted by the family he left behind when he moved
IN SPITE of the success of East is East
, getting the sequel
made was not an easy task.
“I had an eight-month regimen of getting three
hours of sleep a night,” says the admitted “workaholic” Udwin. A five-week shoot
in India (which doubled for Pakistan) had its obstacles, too. But Udwin is happy
with the finished film.
“A lot of people have told me they liked it even
better than East is East
,” she says.
It certainly hasn’t been easy for
her family, either, she admits.
“It’s as if I had three babies. I have
two children, and my real babies suffered because of the attention I paid to the
other baby, my film. But I knew my real kids would survive without me, but my
She credits an understanding husband with helping at home
when she needed it.
Udwin’s path to producing was unusual.
started out as an actress, and I was very successful,” she says. She moved from
South Africa to England to pursue this career. Although she appeared as Jessica
in a television production of Merchant of Venice
and appeared plays with Sir
Alec Guinness and Alan Rickman, she felt unfulfilled.
“I’m a control
freak, I hated auditioning and then having to wait or being told I couldn’t have
the part because my eyes were the wrong color.”
By chance, she got
involved in “leading a crusade against an evil landlord,” who was trying to
evict tenants through threats and violence. The tenants won the two-year battle
that Udwin led, and she decided to turn the experience into a docu-drama, in
which she played herself.
“I was at a crossroads,” she says. The
experience of learning the laws and fighting the system “opened up new worlds
for me. That’s when I made the switch to producing.”
She went on to
produce some television dramas and documentaries about controversial subjects,
including the Birmingham Six, a group of Irish prisoners falsely convicted of
IRA terrorism, a case similar to the one that inspired the Daniel Day-Lewis
film, In the Name of the Father
Asked whether there is still a need for
women’s film festivals in a world where Kathryn Bigelow won a Best Director
Oscar, she says quickly, “Yes. Times have changed, but the world is still run by
There is a difference between men and women, and women’s films tend
to focus on different concerns. It may be politically incorrect, but women are
more in the business of nurturing.”