The Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival has concluded, but movie lovers of the Jewish persuasion need not go into a funk.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) is underway, and the schedule is chock-full of Jewish- and Israeli-themed films. I have had a chance to screen a few of these films, in the comfort of my home or laptop. I have been impressed with several of the MSPIFF entries. (Click here for a summary of the Jewish films in the festival.)
Free Men (trailer below), an Algerian and French production, takes us to Paris, under Nazi occupation in 1942. Director Ismaël Ferroukhi, in this excellent fictional narrative film, focuses on Younes, an unemployed Algerian whose black marketeering lands him in the clutches of the French police. To get out of the jam, Younes agrees to spy on the Paris Mosque, which the authorities suspect is giving out false identification certificates to North African Jews, among others.
Although Younes is a fictional character, the film portrays a number of real people, including the mosque leaders and Salim Halali, an Algerian Jewish singer who was passing as an Arab. As the story develops, Younes and Salim develop a friendship, amid the fraught conflict pitting freedom fighters against the Nazi regime and its collaborators.
Younes (Tahar Rahim) and Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) confer in a scene from Free Men, a compelling film set in Nazi-occupied Paris. The 2012 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (mspfilmfest.org/2012) offers a great line-up of Jewish- and Israeli-themed films. (Photo: Courtesy of Film Movement)
In some respects, Free Men follows in the footsteps of exciting resistance films like Max Manus (Norway) and Flame and Citron (Denmark). However, it is less action-oriented than those films, as it develops its intriguing cast of characters. There is some gunplay, as one would expect in a film set in World War II; and there is a brief gay subplot. Also, the film should provoke discussion with its portrayal of Righteous Gentiles, in this case the Muslim communal leaders in wartime Paris, who shelter Jews in the subterranean recesses of the sprawling mosque. As we learn from the film, the Nazis were not eager to cause a rift with the Muslim nations in North Africa at that stage of the war, so they exercised restraint when dealing with the mosque in the French capital.
Turning to the war on the West Bank, This Is My Land… Hebron provides horrifying glimpses into the cauldron of hatred that has developed in an overwhelmingly Palestinian city, with 600 Jewish settlers in its center. The settlers are protected by 2,000 Israeli soldiers; an officer who served in Hebron asserts that any brigade commander who does not heed the will of the settlers will soon find himself quickly replaced.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of this film — an Israeli and Italian production, directed by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson — is the depiction of the settler children, a gaggle of stone-throwing delinquents who clearly act out on behalf of their parents. If the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, now approaching 45 years in duration, slogs into another generation, it is a certainty that the plot will sicken.
This Is My Land… Hebron clearly takes the side of the Palestinians who are humiliated at every turn (and were the objects of the 1994 mass murder by Baruch Goldstein, who opened fire and killed 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque during Ramadan). However, perhaps I missed it, but Hebron passes over the depredations committed by Palestinian terrorists, such as the March 26, 2001, killing of Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old baby in her mother’s arms, by a Palestinian sniper firing from a nearby hill.
All in all, Hebron, a 75-minute documentary, provides a disturbing excursion into one of the worst locales in the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An American Jewish viewer is likely to come away from this cinematic encounter with violent, fundamentalist Jewish settlers with a new appreciation for the use of the popular Yiddish appellation meshuga — crazy.
And for more bad news from the Middle East, The Collaborator and His Family, an 85-minute Israeli documentary by Adi Barash and Ruth Shatz, illuminates another musty corner of the occupation, with its story of a Palestinian who forged a career informing for Israel, then fled his native Hebron before his compatriots killed him, as they did his brother. In this award-winning film (DocAviv Documentary Film Festival), Ibrahim El-Akels, the collaborator, lives in a slum in south Tel Aviv — where prostitutes, drug addicts and foreign workers coexist in squalor — with his wife, Yusra, and five children. They are all in Israel illegally, waiting for residency papers from Ibrahim’s Israeli “operator.” The teenage sons run wild in the streets.
When Ibrahim gets into an argument with his wife and slaps her, the police take him away. In a scene in a courthouse corridor, Ibrahim’s Jewish Israeli lawyer explains that his client has been ordered to stay away from his put-upon wife for eight months, even though he does not have the requisite papers to even be in Israel — it is a legal “anomaly,” the lawyer points out. This is downbeat but compelling filmmaking.
So, let’s finish up on a high note, with the serious and seriously excellent Israeli drama Restoration (in Israel, Boker tov adon Fidelman). The 105-minute fictional narrative film stars Sasson Gabai — whom some might remember from his role as the Egyptian police band leader in Eran Kolirin’s superb film from 2007, The Band’s Visit — as Yaakov, an antique furniture restorer in Tel Aviv. Restoration is essentially about a generational conflict, as Yaakov is pitted against his son, Noah, who connives behind his back to demolish the furniture shop and develop an apartment complex. A young stranger comes to town, in the person of Noah, who becomes Yaakov’s shop assistant, and develops an interest in Noah’s pregnant wife (played by Sarah Adler). This film took top honors at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
Time to get off the couch, pedal over to the St. Anthony Main Cinema and see some Jewish films.