Oblivion director aims to tell the Jewish story

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Paul Morrison grew up in Northern London in the late 1950s and early ’60s in a middle class Jewish family that was different from its neighbors.

“We [Jews] never felt the same as the English,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in London. “We never felt quite as good as the English middle class. We never had their confidence. The class system in Britain grows certain people up as though they were going to run the country. We didn’t have that social confidence.”

Morrison drew on these experiences when he wrote and directed “Wondrous Oblivion,” which ran in the 2004 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and opens in the Bay Area on Friday, Dec. 22. It is a feel-good film set in the mid-’60s in a working class section of London.

At its center is a Jewish family, the Wisemans, caught in a conundrum when a Jamaican family moves next door. The Wisemans are pressured to ignore the black newcomers by their white and ironically anti-Semitic neighbors. But as outcasts themselves in post-Holocaust London, they understand where prejudice leads.

Their son, David, is wondrously oblivious. He’s oblivious of the subtle (to a 13-year-old) social differences between black and white. He’s also oblivious to his ineptitude on the cricket pitch. He befriends the young girl, Judy, and her father, who teaches him how to improve his game.

It is a multi-layered story told in entertaining fashion: Victor Wiseman (Stanley Townsend), a Polish Jew and workaholic, has little time for his family and knows so little about sports he couldn’t help his son even if he had the time. His much younger German wife feels neglected and isolated. When young David’s improved athletic skills suddenly make him popular in school, he doesn’t invite Judy to his all-white birthday party.

Interestingly, Morrison identifies most closely with Judy “when she says, ‘No one asks me what I know.’ It was like that when I grew up. You were meant to be kind of invisible. You could be Jewish, but not be too Jewish.”

Morrison attended a private school that had a Jewish quota. “There were jokes about Jews. It wasn’t hate filled; it was more snide. There were swastikas on the blackboard and things like that,” he said.

“There was this common perception that the Holocaust was somehow the Jews’ own fault, because they didn’t fight back. I remember one of the teachers saying that and feeling really bad and ashamed of being Jewish. But there was also a secret kind of pride that we were really great and clever.”

Morrison was raised as a Reform Jew. “My grandparents were anarchists. They didn’t believe in religion. For a long time, they wouldn’t set foot in a synagogue. But they were still 100 percent Jewish,’ he said.

“My parents founded a synagogue, not because they were believers but because they thought we should grow up with other Jewish kids. The post-war Jewish world was very depressing — the Holocaust, that particular brand of anti-Semitism. There was no sense of joy of life. I didn’t have any of that.”

Morrison drifted away from his faith. “I moved from the Jewish world for a long time,’ he said. “It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I started coming back.”

In the interim, he studied in England and the United States (at Harvard) and wound up with dual careers, as a psychotherapist and a filmmaker. “In my family there was strong pressure to get a safe career, but they also loved art and literature,’ he said. “It was very confusing for me for a while trying to figure out what I was going to do.”

At first he made mostly documentary films. “When I started telling stories, the stories I wanted to tell were primarily Jewish. I wanted to tell stories about the people I grew up with. In the media 10 or 15 years ago, the only recognition of Jews was either about the Holocaust or Israel. There was no real recognition of living, breathing Jews. I started to make documentaries about living Jews.”

His first feature film, “Solomon and Gaenor,” was set in Wales at the turn of the 20th century. It was about a romance between a Jewish boy and a “chapel girl” (i.e. non-Jew). It was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign film category.

Despite his successes, Morrison admits “I’m not in a situation where I have three or four projects lined up. It’s always a struggle for me and my family. That’s partly the nature of the industry and partly because of the films I want to make, films that have meaning to me.”

“Wondrous Oblivion” opens Friday, Dec. 22 at Opera Plaza Cinema in S.F.

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.