The festival features a variety of Israeli films this year, including "Gett," "Zero Motivation," "Sacred Sperm," "The Kindergarten Teacher" and others. Rechy Elias' film "The Gift of Fire" from 2014 is, according to the festival's website, "a sweeping, romantic saga in a powerful historical setting" about a Jewish girl named Perla who is "forced to flee her privileged home and family in 15th century Spain, when the horrors of the Inquisition catches up with her."
The drama, which was scheduled to be screened on June 19 at the Odeon in Swiss Cottage and at JW3, the London Jewish community center, sparked a row among cinema viewers who wished to attend the screening.
Festival-goer David Lass contacted the organizers and JW3 to complain at being denied a chance to see the film.
"The festival said they were a private charity in the UK, and were entitled to hold private screenings for women only to see special films during their annual festival," he told the JC. "However since all the cinema venues involved in the festival program are open to the general public, I believe that this policy of excluding male film-goers from all screenings would be quite unjustified under UK equality laws.
"I asked them if they would offer a male-only screening giving men the chance and they declined."
The Odeon group decided last week not to allow the restriction. "We do not, and will not, restrict entry to any film based on gender. We only restrict entry to our screenings based on age – as laid out in legislation around BBFC ratings," the cinema spokesperson said.
In response, the JC reported, the co-founders of the festival released a joint statement saying they were withdrawing the film: "We could not accommodate Mrs. Elias’s religious requirements and enable the cinema to maintain its policy not to restrict entry to any film based on gender.
"The film contains women dancing and singing, and the haredi community, and indeed many religious Jews, do not feel that men should be watching this.
"We respect the position of the filmmaker and the cinema alike, but have decided at this time we need to honor both parties and the only way to do so is to cancel the screening at Odeon Swiss Cottage."
'Director's religious beliefs must be honored'
The film's leading actress, Razia Israeli, said in an interview ahead of the screening that it was the second time she had worked with Rechy Elias, who "I adore and love so much."
"The movie is made by women, written by Rechy Elias, the actresses are women, and it's just for women to watch," she added. "There are all these women who don’t have the chance like we have to see movies all the time. It's just in the times of the holidays and usually in the time of Sukkot and then Passover. So it's the holiday and the movie together. And this is the feeling that I have, that it's just like a holiday to watch these movies.
"I hope many, many women will come to this movie and I'm sure they will enjoy it because it's a great experience, very different and a great experience."
A spokesperson for the festival confirmed that the organizers had agreed to show the film based on the film-makers requests as a haredi woman.
"We would love to show it to the world, but we had to agree to women-only screenings at the request of the director," he said. "We feel it is a valid inclusion in the festival as the quality and standard of the film is very high and we have to honor her religious beliefs."
'A rare film'
JW3 chief executive, Raymond Simonson, said in response to the criticism of the ban: "Whilst it is unusual for us to have a women-only screening in the JW3 Cinema, it is very common for all manner of women’s only events across the entire Jewish community – as well as in the wider non-Jewish world, including in arts venues, community centers, etc – and this is generally accepted.
"'Gift of Fire' is a rare film in that it was made by a female director from the haredi community, and has some haredi women acting in it," he told the JC. "The director, Rechy Elias, made it with the explicit intention of it only being show to female audiences. Without that condition, she would never have made the film as she would not have been able to express herself artistically in the same way, and some of the female actors would not have agreed to act in it.
"Whilst that may be very challenging to many of us, we are proud to be able to provide a platform for a female film director from the haredi community to be able to express herself artistically, as well as a safe environment for Jewish women from across the entire spectrum of the community to see this extraordinary film," Simonson concluded.