Easts meets West

After producing the smash hit ‘East Is East’ in 1999, Israeli-born Leslee Udwin speaks to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about some of the challenges she faced when putting together a sequel.

Leslie Udwin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Leslie Udwin)
Leslie Udwin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Leslie Udwin)
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 life.
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 produced.
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 East 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 screenplay.
“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 to England.
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 film wouldn’t.”
She credits an understanding husband with helping at home when she needed it.
Udwin’s path to producing was unusual.
“I 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 men.
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.”