New York gets a taste of Sephardic cinema
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New York gets a taste of Sephardic cinema

Forget Barbra, Woody and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’: Program spotlights Jews of non-European heritage

A scene from 'Free Men,' whose director won a prestigious award in Abu Dhabi. (photo credit: courtesy)
A scene from 'Free Men,' whose director won a prestigious award in Abu Dhabi. (photo credit: courtesy)

When it comes to Jews and movies, certain popular images persist.

A major common link? Each focuses on Jews of European background, while overlooking the half of world Jewry that hails from other regions.

For the sixteenth time, the New York Sephardic Film Festival is offering a corrective to that vision, showcasing more than a dozen movies and documentaries about Jews from different backgrounds. Opening Thursday at Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History, the festival will highlight productions that cover a wide range of topics and time periods.

“One of the reasons we have this film festival is to raise awareness that not all American Jews are Ashkenazi” – of European descent – says Lynne Winters, the festival’s director. “The goal is to broaden people’s perspectives of who Jews are, to show that they didn’t all come from Eastern Europe.”

That’s hardly a revelation in Israel, where Sephardim comprise between 50 and 60 percent of the total Jewish population. But in the US, according to the American Sephardi Federation, their numbers are tiny, limited to between 4 and 8 percent of the overall Jewish community.

Perhaps as a result, none of the festival’s films comes from Hollywood, originating instead mostly in Israel, France and among independent American filmmakers. Their subjects span a variety of topics related to Sephardim, a Hebrew term that literally means “Spanish” Jews, but which has come to include Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa.

Running a week, the festival will kick off with “Free Men,” a French-Moroccan movie based on a true and little-known act of heroism during the Holocaust: the use of Paris’ Grand Mosque to shelter Jews – most of them Arabic-speaking Sephardim – from the occupying Germans.

With a cast including Palestinian actor Mahmud Shalaby as a Jewish singer, the tale won over fans in at least parts of the Middle East, and netted its Moroccan-born director, Ismael Ferroukhi, the ‘Best Director from the Arab World’ prize at last year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Accounts differ as to how many lives were saved, but the story of Muslims protecting Jews, sadly counterintuitive in the current moment, generated enough interest in France to inspire educational screenings for students. With a cast including Palestinian actor Mahmud Shalaby as a Jewish singer, the tale won over fans in at least parts of the Middle East, and netted its Moroccan-born director, Ismael Ferroukhi, the “Best Director from the Arab World” prize at last year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival. (A day after its festival premiere, “Free Men” will open at theaters in New York City, and will then expand to other cities in the US.)

In a somewhat similar vein, the festival will also screen “Ifrane 2011,” a documentary about the first Holocaust conference in the Arab world. Organized by Muslim students at Morocco’s Al-Akhawayn University, the conference was partly inspired by Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who in 2009 issued an unexpected public acknowledgement of the genocide. The festival screening will be followed by a discussion with the film’s makers, as well as Elmehdi Boudra and Laaziza Dalil, Moroccan students who initiated the conference after getting interested in their country’s once-large Jewish community.

“It’s a very powerful statement,” Winters says, “that there are young people in the Arab world who are making an effort to acknowledge the Jewish heritage of their own culture and make links with the Jewish community.”

Part of what makes “Ifrance 2011” and “Free Men” interesting, of course, is that they defy the frequent narrative of Jewish-Muslim antipathy, a theme of several of the festival’s other films. “The Farhud,” a documentary produced by Israel’s Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, examines a 1941 pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad, which left 137 dead and was partly the result of propaganda imported from Nazi Germany. The film identifies the massacre as a turning point for Iraq’s 2,600-year-old Jewish community, which plummeted from 165,000 in the late ’40s to just a tiny remnant today.

That story is echoed in “The Last Jews of Libya,” which explores the country’s Jewish history through the prism of a single family. Along with “The Farhud” and several other festival films, the documentary will be accompanied by a panel discussion.

“We approached ‘The Last Jews of Libya’ as a way into a dialogue about what’s happening in the current situation,” says Winters, referring to the revolutions of the Arab spring. “Our speakers are Vivienne Roumani-Denn, whose film it is, and Professor Mustapha Tlili, who runs the Center for Dialogues at NYU. Richard Chesnoff, a veteran journalist who spent many years in the Middle East, met [ousted Libyan dictator] Moammar Gadhafi, and can talk about the past and contemporary situation.”

The Israel film, 'The Flood.' (photo credit: courtesy)
The Israel film, 'The Flood.' (photo credit: courtesy)

While many of the festival selections focus on weighty, difficult subjects, the program also offers lighter fare, though always infused with a bit of history and culture. “The Flood,” which tells the story of a Sephardic boy approaching his bar mitzva, won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as six nominations at last year’s Ophirs, Israel’s Academy Awards. The stars of “My Lovely Sister,” adapted from a Moroccan-Jewish folk tale about a pair of estranged siblings, won the best actress and supporting actress statuettes at the Ophirs.

Though the films relate to only a portion of the Jewish experience, their appeal should extend widely, says Winters, who comes from an Ashkenazi background.

“It’s global,” she says of the festival’s scope. “The Sephardim went everywhere – North Africa, the Balkans, the Ottoman empire. I find their history so interesting, so rich, so broad. It’s tremendous.”

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