In 2006, and to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, Yoav Segal made a film that interwove the historical legacy of the event with his family’s history. Yoav’s grandfather was a ‘veteran’ of the ‘Battle’, and Yoav had grown up hearing moving stories about Jewish life in the East End of London. The Battle of Cable Street has been commemorated at regular intervals. 1 In his thoughtful and thorough responses to the questions I put to him, Yoav demonstrates the continued power and potential of the memory of the Battle of Cable Street to motivate political action and artistic creation.
What inspired you to make ‘The Battle of Cable Street’?
My grandfather is, and has always been, a hero of mine, and is a hugely inspiring character. It was his brilliant telling of the event that inspired me to make the film. His story of organising and demonstrating at the Battle of Cable Street is part of my family identity and has informed the person I’ve become. It’s just always been there. At the beginning of my career, and subsequently, it’s always felt very important to tell the story and in as many ways as possible.
How did you first hear about the Battle of Cable Street? How much was it part of your own family history?
My grandfather told the story to me when I was very young. Its story of social conscience and action is very important to me. My mum’s branch of the family, as with many Jewish families, is from Eastern Europe and there really aren’t many stories from before coming to the UK – so my grandfather’s stories are a big part of my family history.
How was the event and the experience of Jewish life and anti-fascist politics part of your family history?
1930s Jewish Stepney was a fascinating melting pot for my grandfather: tailors’ unions, communist groups, radical Jews, connections to other immigrants (Irish dockers, etc.) and the build up to WW2 and everything that came with it. The politics, culture and questions of the time really formed the character of modern London Jewry – my family included – so it’s living history. Just seeing all the different groups – the Jewish community, secular groups, religious groups, radical socialists and the centre-left all gearing up for the 80th anniversary of Cable St, shows how alive those times, and their ideas and conflicts, still are.
What factors and opportunities came together to allow you to make the film when you did, and to mark the 70th anniversary of the event?
I made three films about Cable Street: the first, a documentary with my granddad telling the story; the second (and the film we’re discussing) a dramatic animated version; and the third, a broader film about 1930s Jewish social activism telling the story of the International Brigades and the fight against Franco. I won the UK Jewish Short Film Fund – which funded the dramatic short film – and the longer film was for the Jewish Museum. It was at the time of a resurgence of interest in the 1930s Jewish community and its activism. I hope I played a part in bringing more awareness to some of the stories of those times.
The film is so moving, visually arresting and beautiful. Can you tell us more about the creative process and what you sought to achieve by the way you intertwined live action with animation.
Thanks for the kind words! I had already told the story through a documentary film so my interest was telling the story now through the eyes of a child, remembering from when I was a kid, and capturing the core messages of the story as I saw them. My grandfather at the time looked up, saw the world around him, found his voice and expressed himself – so I wanted the kid to be challenged in the film to look up (from his sketchbook) see the world around him (his sketchbook coming to life) to find a voice (calling for his granddad) and express himself (which he does at the end of the film). It’s a message that means something to me still and, in this Brexit, Trump, rise of the far-right, post-factual world, I think challenging ourselves to look up, to see the world around us, to find a voice and to express ourselves is a good lesson from Cable Street.
As a filmmaker, how can you contribute to the preservation of the memory of the event, and of resistance to fascism and racism? Or does film contribute instead to the mythology of the event?
A few weeks ago I met Paul Butler for the first time – a wonderful guy and one of the painters of the Cable Street mural that I was inspired by as a kid and brought to life in the film. We had a long conversation about how important art and expression is to preserving the memory of any political event and for calling people to action. He painted the mural that has become part of the Cable Street story and I was inspired by my grandfather’s story, and the mural, to tell the story through film. Translating the story through art keeps it alive. We don’t know who subsequently engaged with those works, but we know that many have. I’ve used film to put the Cable Street story in museums, cultural centres, people’s homes and on social media so I know that I have had an impact. A friend of mine, Van Badham, a prominent activist journalist in Australia, cited one of my Cable Street films in her own social activism story when opposing racism in Australia.
Why do you think it is important to remember and commemorate the Battle, and especially so at this moment in history?
It’s important to commemorate the Battle as the fight goes on. With the rhetoric around Brexit, Trump’s campaign, Le Pen, Wilders and the far right rising in Europe, a global resurgence of populist fascism in a new and terrifying form has never looked more likely. We must all be incredibly vigilant and fight back, however we can. We are not at liberty to do nothing. The lessons from history are too many and too clear to allow fascist language to be normalised in public conversation. It feels like the genie is out of the bottle.
The pervasive argument that everything can be held up to an economic measure is dangerous because populist racism from demagogues gets big views – and big views are eyes on screens – and eyes on screens become advertising revenue which is very profitable. Put simply, in strictly economic terms, blaming foreigners on TV is profitable. There is something dreadfully wrong if enlightened thinking doesn’t cut in and assert a moral and ethical framework. TV executives have to show Trump being racist, because their audiences leap when they do. If they didn’t they’d be answerable to their shareholders – there has to be a way to counter this.
What do you think the lesson to be learnt are for your own generation and for young people coming of age politically at present?
To stand up and fight fascism wherever it comes and whenever it comes.
Do you worry that fewer and fewer people know about Cable Street, and are aware of its significance? From my experience teaching about Cable Street to my undergraduate students, over the years fewer and fewer have heard about it before starting my module.
It concerns me but as part of a broader worry when it comes to people being trained by social media and opinion news that history and facts are flimsy things to be taken lightly. I was astounded by how easily the British public looked the other way from racist language during the Brexit campaign, so beyond Cable Street there are big, ugly historical lessons that have been forgotten by many, like, ‘when immigrants get solely blamed for a country’s problems…the country has a problem’!
There are a number of events being organised to mark the 80th anniversary of Cable Street. What do you think we should try to achieve with this round of commemorations, and how might the goals be different?
We must turn the gaze on the NOW. That is always the point of telling an important story with an important message. We need to look up at the horrible language in our papers and on TV and see how destructive and dangerous it is. We need to find our voice and express our anger and concern in an impactful and effective way. We must do it now, and we must do it together. History is very clear what happens once the language of hate becomes street parlance. If not now, when?
Yoav Segal is a filmmaker and also Creative Director of RightsInfo, a human rights charity that tells simple stories of human rights and their importance. He will be introducing his film and joining in the panel discussion and Q &A at The Battle of Cable Street 80 Years On: Political Movements, Memory and Meaning event starting at 5.45 p.m. at the HRI, University of Sheffield. Don’t miss it. You can find him on twitter @.
Julie V. Gottlieb is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield, a regular contributor to History Matters, and she has organized the event The Battle of Cable Street 80 Years On. You can find her on twitter @JulieVGottlieb.
Image: Still from ‘The Battle of Cable Street’ (2006), courtesy of Yoav Segal.
- In fact, one of my first academic contributions was to the commemoration organized for the 60th anniversary, which was later published as the volume, edited by Tony Kushner and Nadia Valman, Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society (London, 1999). ↩