Recent anti-Semitic killings in Paris have French Jews wondering whether they’d better head out of the country. At the same time, a movie that eerily foreshadowed them has American Jews heading toward theaters – and the 11th Charlotte Jewish Film Festival will show it Feb. 24 in the middle of a three-week lineup.
The festival officially starts Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. with “Side Dishes,” free shorts at Levine Jewish Community Center. The big kickoff comes Saturday at 7:15 p.m. with the documentary “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love.” (His widow Terre is scheduled to appear, and a dessert reception follows the film at Temple Israel.)
But no movie will stir more controversy than “24 Days,” in which French director Alexandre Arcady re-creates the 2006 kidnapping and torture of phone salesman Ilan Halimi.
As the Parisian police devote themselves to the case, Halimi’s mother attempts to convince them it’s religiously motivated. Arcady carefully crafts the story to leave that element in doubt, though recent real-life events cast a shadow across the past. The French Ministry of Education has decided the film should be shown in public schools.
“This had a very polarized release in France,” says Menemsha Films president Neil Friedman, who picked up the movie for North American distribution. “It did badly theatrically. (The subject) is difficult for the French to deal with.
“There are 600,000 Jews there, and France had a Jewish prime minister (Leon Blum) just before World War II. But they had a history of collaboration in World War II, and some scholars say France is the most anti-Semitic nation in Europe, more than Germany and more than Poland. Among my French Jewish friends in the film business, a lot have emigrated to the U.S. or contemplate coming here.”
Friedman should know. Menemsha began 16 years ago as an international sales agent for art-house films, from “101 Reykjavik” to “The Story of the Weeping Camel.” It became a distributor a decade ago, finding what Friedman calls “the Jewish sweet spot” with the acclaimed 2006 documentary “The Rape of Europa.”
Most films since have dealt with the Jewish diaspora, from a Catskills documentary (“Welcome to Kutsher’s”) to a feature about a Dutch lad who leaves home before turning 13 and meets a thief who holds the key to his identity (“The Zig Zag Kid”).
So “24 Days” was a no-brainer pickup in one sense but a challenge in another. First, Arcady doesn’t speak English; he needs a translator when he promotes or explains the film. Second, controversy swirls around the movie, which some French critics found too negative or exaggerated. Arcady fueled the fire at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, walking away from a post-screening Q-and-A because the entire audience wouldn’t stay to hear it.
“Jews have it so good in America that we can be (outspoken) here,” says Friedman. “When I deal with English Jews in our business, in no circumstances will they bring up their Jewishness with non-Jewish friends. They just keep that under their hats.
“France has some of both types. Their Jews speak strongly about being Jewish – a lot of the intellectuals obviously are – but they get push-back in French society.
“Anyone wearing a kippah in Europe has to be looking around 360 degrees now, to make sure they’re safe. Americans don’t look across the ocean to see the problems other people face, generally speaking. That’s why this movie is important.”