New Director of British Council Calmly Weathers Israel's Storms

Alan Gemmell's roundabout journey to cultural post includes law school and the civil service. Despite brush with war in November and storms in January, 'I have never felt as welcome arriving in a new place,' he says.

Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz

When Alan Gemmell landed in Tel Aviv in late November to take up his post as the new director of the British Council in Israel, it was the day that Israel and Hamas declared a truce in the last Gaza war. “The first phone call I got was from my office back in London telling me not to leave my room,” he recalls.

After heading back home for Christmas break, he returned to Israel earlier this month only to be welcomed by the worst winter storm here in a decade.

Despite what might appear to be an ominous start to his new life in the Middle East, Gemmell insists it’s been an unusually smooth landing. “I have never felt as welcome arriving in a new place as I did here,” he remarks.

The 34-year-old Scottish-born envoy is settling into his new job of promoting cultural, scientific and educational ties between Great Britain and Israel, just in time to take charge of the British Council’s flagship event here – the annual 10-day British Film Festival, which opens at various venues around the country on Thursday.

Now in its tenth year, the upcoming festival will focus on new filmmakers who have already distinguished themselves in other art forms. It will also spotlight the 1970s British comedy team of Monty Python with some classics as well as the Israeli premiere of “A Liar’s Autobiography,” Graham Chapman’s fictional animated autobiography.

Other festival highlights include “Broken,” the cinematic debut by the award-winning theater director Rufus Norris about a young girl who loses her innocence after witnessing a violent attack; “Shadow Dancer,” a narrative film by documentarian James Marsh that focuses on the conflict in Ireland; and “Ill Manors,” a huge hit in Britain last year directed by the hip-hop star Plan B.

The opening film of the festival, highlighting the expanding global reach of British cinema, is Martin McDonagh’s Los-Angeles-based comedy “Seven Psychopaths,” starring Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson. The festival films, which are curated by British Council staff in Israel, will be screened at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa cinematheques.

“As I see it, film is a great way of getting people to explore their interests in the U.K.,” says Gemmell.

His connection to the arts dates back to his early years, when as a 13-year-old boy growing up in a poor neighborhood in southwest Scotland he was given an opportunity to learn to play the piano and trombone. He went on to study music at the University of Glasgow, with the intention of becoming a professional musician, but one year into his studies he decided to shift course radically.

“I thought at the time that artists didn’t change the world but lawyers did, so I decided to study law,” he recounts. After earning a law degree he helped to set up the Scottish Youth Parliament, an organization that provides a voice to Scotland’s young people. He moved on from there to the civil service, where among other positions he served as assistant director responsible for economic migration at the Home Office and counter-terrorism adviser at the Cabinet Office.

After working in the civil service for five years Gemmell says he came to the conclusion that he had written off the arts too early in life. “I sort of realized that culture does change the world,” he says, and with that realization took up his first job with the British Council as head of external relations. His next posting was director of the British Council in Sao Paulo. From there he moved to the organization’s office in Mexico City.

Is your appointment to Israel considered a move up?
“Yes. It’s an important country for the U.K. because there’s a very vibrant cultural scene here. “

Anything that’s surprised you about the country since relocating here?
“I didn’t realize that Tel Aviv was so beautiful. I’d say it’s the Rio of this part of the world.”

Gemmell has just rented an apartment in Jaffa, which he will be sharing with his partner, Damien, a ballet dancer, who as an 18-year-old spent a year in Israel dancing with the Israel National Ballet.

In his last posting in Mexico, Gemmell ran a training program for 10,000 English teachers. His dream, he says, is to do something similar in Israel. “I would love to be able to reach to every single English teacher in this country,” he says.

Alan Gemmell. Credit: Daniel Bar-On