LONDON — Many of us carry family baggage but for some people it is heavier than for others.
Israeli filmmaker Gur Bentwich had always been aware that his notable family name triggered a curious mix of kudos and contrariness among British Jewry.
“I can’t say I was obsessed by it before, it wasn’t something that kept bothering me, “ explains Gur Bentwich, by phone from his Tel Aviv home. “[Making a film about my family] always seemed like a boring and self-obsessed thing to do, but then one day it stopped seeming like that and I decided it was the right time to do it.”
The result is, “The Bentwich Syndrome.” A wry, witty and quirky documentary in which he investigates the truth about one of British Jewry’s most acclaimed — and much maligned — quasi-aristocratic families, of which he happens to be a part. In particular, he focuses on his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, an eccentric, ambitious lawyer and Zionist who established a dynasty that would have a profound impact on British Jewish life and the early State of Israel.
“The Bentwich Syndrome” was first screened at DocAviv film festival in Tel Aviv in May and it has also been broadcast on the Israeli TV station, Channel 8. Now it is set to receive its UK premiere November 15 as part of the annual UK Jewish Film Festival.
Gur Bentwich invented the so-called “syndrome” to describe the actions and behaviors of certain members of his family. In the film he defines it as, “a collective psychological syndrome, which causes its sufferers to glorify their family heritage and exaggerate its importance and contribution to mankind.”
At the heart of the syndrome lies a sense of self-importance and, although for many Bentwiches there was a genuine desire to make a difference to society, what they did was often mythologized. A pioneer of Zionism, Herbert led a delegation of influential British Jews to Palestine in 1897 — a story that features in bestselling book, “My Promised Land,” written by Haaretz journalist and Gur’s cousin, Ari Shavit. Records show that Herbert did consort with Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, however his claim that he wrote the Balfour Declaration has not been corroborated by anyone else.
But, crucially, says Bentwich, “The family bug is not to fit in, not to get along with the establishment.” He cites patriarch, Herbert, as a prime example of this: He was thrown out of the north London Orthodox synagogue that he built and the law firm he started. According to Gur, he fell out with everyone.
‘The family bug is not to fit in, not to get along with the establishment’
Herbert and his wife, Susannah had 11 children, one of which was Joseph Bentwich, Gur’s grandfather. He received the Israel Prize in 1962 for his contribution to education but the film explains, “As befits a Bentwich, he got kicked out of his job as a school principal.”
This “family bug” may be one of the reasons why the family was never given any other formal recognition in Israel, thinks Bentwich. For example, it is unclear why Norman Bentwich, an influential academic and lawyer, was not acknowledged in some way. He was appointed Attorney General in Mandate Palestine and also played a significant role in the development of Palestinian law.
In trying to make sense of his legacy, Bentwich combines interviews with surviving members of his family with a clever use of animation. He reveals an enigmatic and at times, “pompous” family, brought to life with funny stories of bizarre behaviors and determined rebels as well as tales that are tragic.
Take for instance Nita Bentwich and her husband Michael Lange, who settled in Zichron Ya’akov. They owned Beit Daniel, an estate that was a hub for visiting dignitaries in the early 20th century and is now a national landmark, leased by the Open University of Israel. At the age of 38, Nita died suddenly after 11 years of marriage and no children. It then emerged that she had been a virgin. Devastated at her death, a few years later Lange shot himself.
Throughout the film, a family entourage, made up of his wife — the actor, writer and editor Maya Kenig — and their two young children, accompanies Gur. The hand held camera follows their travels in England and Israel, where they visit various places of significance, including the Israeli ambassador’s residence in north London, which had, at one time, also been the Bentwich family home.
This informal style and its depiction of family life — in particular the presence of restless, young children — lends a home movie-like quality to the film.
“It was summertime and I didn’t have anything to do with my kids, so we needed to bring them,” Bentwich jokes, but then goes on to explain that he put them in the film on purpose.
“Since almost everybody we’re taking about [in the film] is already dead, you need some action. I thought the kids would add some kind of energy and some fun to make things come alive.” He also admits to an ideological excuse. “Since my kids and I are also Bentwiches, and since I am exploring the family bug, they carry this family syndrome like everybody else in the film. So, why shouldn’t they be a part of it?”
The film’s zany use of animation is reminiscent of the surreal British comedy group, Monty Python. This was deliberate. “We went for the Python thing because it is kind of half an English film, “ he explains. The animated images are based on cutout pictures taken from the Bentwich photograph archive — a technique that allowed for a “happier, more interesting and funky” approach in telling the family saga, he says.
Bentwich says that the family reaction to the film has generally been one of acceptance.
“Most of the people that I’m talking about died a long time ago. It’s easier to make fun of dead people than live ones, and also, most of them never had kids so there’s nobody to be hurt,” he says. “The more generations pass, the less people take this kind of stuff seriously.”
Bentwich admits he began the project with a negative outlook — he had always made fun of his heritage and his irreverence is obvious in the film. Yet, by the end of the process, he felt he had reached an understanding and acceptance about the family and its history.
“I realized that I’m part of the story too. Much of my character comes from being a Bentwich, whether I like it or not. Everybody’s got his own craziness and it’s ok.”
‘The Bentwich Syndrome’ will screen at the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 15, 16 and 18, in London and Manchester. The festival runs November 7 – 22.
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