The acclaimed French director Alexandre Arcady has made many films over his long career, but none, he said, was as difficult to bring to the screen as “24 Days: The True Story of the Ilan Halimi Affair.”
The feature, which opens nationally in the United States on Friday, April 24, dramatizes the experiences of the French-Jewish (of Moroccan extraction) Halimi family during the three and a half weeks in early 2006 when their 23-year-old son Ilan was abducted, tortured and murdered by a suburban Paris gang fueled by anti-Semitism (27 individuals were arrested and tried in the case).
In a recent phone interview from his office in Paris, Arcady (himself a French Jew of Algerian descent) told The Times of Israel that he was moved to make a film based on a memoir written by Ruth Halimi, the victim’s mother.
One sentence in the book struck Arcady as particularly important, and he has actress Zabou Breitman, who plays Ruth Halimi, utter it toward the end of the film.
“I want my son’s death to sound an alarm,” she says.
With hindsight, we know that Ilan Halimi’s murder by the Gang of Barbarians, as the assailants were known, turned out — as Ruth Halimi feared — to be a watershed moment. It was the first of a string of violent and murderous attacks on Jews in France and other European countries over the past decade.
The murder of four Jews by an Islamist terrorist at Paris’s HyperCacher supermarket last January had not yet happened by the time “24 Days” was completed, but other attacks had taken place, such as an Islamist’s shooting to death four people (three of them children) at a Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012.
Nonetheless, Arcady struggled to raise the funds necessary to make the film.
“It was hard to produce because the French justice system and people did not want to see it as an anti-Semitic crime,” he said of the Halimi affair.
Indeed, the film shows the police botching their efforts to save the young cellphone salesman because they are slow to realize that the Barbarians are not common criminals who would likely refrain from killing their hostage. By contrast, Ruth Halimi said she knew that as soon as the ransom demands and threats started referring to Ilan as a “Jew” that they did not regard him as a human being and would kill him.
As was made clear in “Jews & Money,” the 2013 documentary film by Lewis Cohen about the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi, it took serious persuasion before the French court would recognize anti-Semitism as an aggravating circumstance in Halimi’s murder.
“People simply did not want to be associated with this case, and that put me in a difficult position,” said Arcady.
He said that French public television refused to provide support for the project, even though its funding guidelines call for the backing of films like “24 Days.”
“They told me it would just be throwing fuel onto the flames if this film was made,” Arcady said.
‘[French Prime Minister] Manuel Valls told me, “Your film is a mirror that the French don’t want to look into”‘
Undeterred, Arcady managed to pull together the requisite finances. But after the film was released in France in 2014, some theater owners around the country refused to show it. According to the director, only 250,000 people — a very low number relative to the average French audience for a film — have seen “24 Days” in France. The intense drama, featuring a cast of well-known French actors, was shown on French television, but only on minor channels that do not reach most homes.
“[French Prime Minister] Manuel Valls told me, ‘Your film is a mirror that the French don’t want to look into,’” he said.
Revolted by the anti-Semitic crime and worried about the fact that it was primarily members of the Jewish community who came out to the streets to protest against it, Arcady felt he had to do something to perpetuate Halimi’s memory.
“I would have regretted it if [Gang of Barbarians leader, Côte d’Ivoire-born French immigrant Youssouf] Fofana’s name was more remembered than Ilan’s,” he said.
Arcady acknowledged that anti-Semitism continues to be a problem in France, and that anti-Semitic crimes there are increasingly more violent.
Yet he does not think the solution is for the Jews to emigrate.
“We are French citizens. The government is with us. It’s a struggle we need to face, and we need to fight and not leave the territory open to anti-Semitism,” he said.
“I don’t want the Jews to desert France.”