Showing at this year’s London Film Festival are two short works that present very different views of the East End. One is a brutally honest drama about the conflict between traditional Jewish life and that of modern Hackney, while the other is a twee film about dating, posturing as a revelatory social experiment.
Billy Lumby’s Samuel-613 follows a young Hasidic Jew struggling with the discipline his religion demands. The film opens with Shmilu, played with superb awkward intensity by Theo Barklem-Biggs, driving through Hackney, pulling on a cigarette and turning to leer at a woman walking down the street.
He arrives home with a bag of calf jelly for his granddad and is accosted by his father, who accuses him of purchasing pornography from the newsagents and behaving “like a non-Jew”. Furious, Shmilu stamps upstairs to his room, where he stashes the mag under his mattress and browses the web for potential love interests. The temptations of contemporary London, it seems, are everywhere and they pose a threat to his family’s strict orthodoxy.
Following a fierce dinner-table row – a deft display of elegant attention to detail that might be the film’s most impressive scene – Shmilu exiles himself. He’s quickly immersed in a world far removed from the one he’s fled; his confusion and pressing desires collide and the narrative spirals towards a steep and surreal learning curve. It’s a thoughtful take on a fascinating culture that will be a mystery to many viewers.
Just as impressive as the stark subject matter is the style of the film. The hand-held camerawork is sharp, flicking between crisp digital and grainy analogue shots, and the sounds are gorgeous: the ritual washing of hands, the clink and clang of religious paraphernalia, and the thick, soothing Hebrew chants. The choice of music clearly marks the blunt juxtaposition between Shmilu’s old life and his new one.
To achieve his desired level of authenticity, Lumby conducted meticulous research, which began online and advanced to meetings with ostracised members of the Jewish community. He even went undercover to synagogues and, as controversial as that might sound, it has paid dividends; the film is a seething success.
Samuel-613 is at Curzon Soho/ BFI Southbank on 12/16 October at 20.45/12.45
Offline Dating, on the other hand, is less impressive. The so-called Youtube sensation is directed by Samuel Abrahams, who encouraged his friend, actor Tom Greaves, to approach women on the streets of Hackney and ask them out, as a kind of antidote to digital dating. A half-pseudo-documentary, it poses as a clever and insightful critique of modern relationships, when it’s more a damning representation of men, promoting a dense and bullish approach to romance.
For about three-and-a-half minutes, we watch Greaves walk up to prospective partners, behave idiotically and get rejected. His demanding of women’s attention in this way is problematic and makes for uncomfortable viewing. As he begins to achieve a meagre, yet mystifying, degree of success – two girls agree to sort-of go out with him, and he receives encouragement from others – the film feels more and more staged, and by the end it bears no relation to reality whatsoever.
Polished to within an inch of its life, Offline Dating looks like a cross between an Aldi and a Nikon advert. The score that runs throughout resembles something by Sigur Ros and couldn’t be more out of place. While there are a few passably funny moments, it’s essentially an irritating, ineffective film that embodies a lot of what is redundant in arty ‘hipster’ culture today.
When the piece finishes and the credits appear, we hear Greaves’s date, who he’s just kissed, ask him: “Are you embarrassed?” He should be.
Offline Dating is at Vue Cinema Islington/ BFI Southbank on 15/17 October, 18.30/20.45