In the following article, the author surveys four Israeli films by and/or about Mizrahim, Jews of North African or Middle Eastern ethnicity. In particular, she shows how these films illustrate themes of Mizrahi life and cultural expression in Israel: displacement and the search for home, and questions of how best to portray a minority culture in film. Reprinted with permission from Independent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide, published by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
The short film entitled Home (written, directed, and played by David Ofek, 1994) best exemplifies the search for home. The film is set in a sealed room during the Gulf War, focusing on an Iraqi Jewish family whose main concern is the well-being of the older grandmother (Mama). The television screen, finite and framed as it is in this sealed room, not only shows actual Scud missile attacks on Baghdad but becomes a map of this forgotten, inaccessible city; and thus transforms into a vehicle for returning home.
Ironically, the Gulf War, with all its terror and anxiety, brings back a remote homeland. The wandering finger pointing at the blurred TV screen points out an imagined place of residence. Adding to this irony, Saddam Hussein’s Scud attacks increased the visibility of Iraqi Jews in the Israeli map of ethnicity, precisely because the Scuds landed on Ramat-Gan, a town near Tel-Aviv, populated by many Iraqi Jews. Indirectly, this experience enables the grandson, a second generation Iraqi-Israeli, to locate himself in the wider Israeli experience.
Yet Home has transformed. At the end of the film the grandchild, an intellectual Sabra, fantasizes about his future, hoping to unite his conflicting identities: on the one hand his Iraqi roots and on the other hand his modern western upbringing. He will marry his girlfriend, live in the hippest neighborhood of Tel-Aviv, Sheinkin Street, and have children who will sing and dance, like him, to Arabic music.
Sh’chur (Magic, directed by Shmuel Hasfari and written by Hana Azoulay Hasfari, 1994) is another attempt to go home. Now a successful television talk show host in Tel-Aviv, Rachel (played by Hana Azoulay Hasfari and based on her own life) returns to the Moroccan village in the south of Israel which she left to complete her education and develop her career years before. Will this visit enable her to bridge what seems to her irreconcilable worlds?
The film touches upon the gloomy reality of North African populations in villages and development towns of south and north Israel. Few educational, and national resources are allocated to this population. To break the ethnic and class barrier is, in most cases, impossible. Rachel’s Moroccan village (backward, eastern, underdeveloped, the domain of magic) is positioned in striking opposition to Israeli culture (modern, western, progressive, rational) in which Rachel now lives and works.
The fact that Sh’chur is a self representation (the writer herself is the main actor, telling her own life story), adds another layer to the problem of ethnic representation. Yes, finally Mizrahim are telling their own story, but a new question arises: To what extent does such a film add to the already negative representation of Sephardic culture in Israel? Is it productive to air the “dirty laundry” of those who already have enough difficulty being accepted?
Given the fact that there are so few images of Sephardim, especially in the Israeli context, filmmakers from these minority groups cannot escape the burden of becoming spokesmen/women for their culture. Every personal story is unique and idiosyncratic and at the same time inextricable from the cultural and political context from which it stems.
In the particular case, too much pressure is put on Sephardic/Mizrahi filmmakers to represent Sephardic/Mizrahi culture at large. With its fascinating portrayal of Moroccan-Jewish folk magic, Sh’chur was compared to other magical-realist masterpieces like The Dybbuk and Like Water for Chocolate. Among Moroccans themselves, Sh’chur was criticized for telling a story of “primitive” mysticism and for revealing material which was too negative and untrue to their reality.
Another film that raised similar questions was I Bajou, (Ariel Zeitoun, 1992). A French production, filmed in Tunisia, I Bajou (starring Michel Boujenah, who is himself a Tunisian-born French Jew) is based on Ariel Zeitoun’s father’s story. The director recalls his late father’s life in a powerful narrative that focuses mostly upon the French protectorate of Tunisia from the early 1930s through the post-war period of independence.
Like Sh’chur, I Bajou stays close to home, and raises the same question regarding the legitimacy of representing those aspects minority culture which are perceived as negative. Bajou’s extraordinary character touches upon some of the negative stereotypes of the Jew. Bajou’s introverted personality, phenomenal memory for numbers, and hefty build easily evoke the stereotype of the fat Jew who obsessively and successfully deals with money. An intense rape scene is highly provoking and disturbing–indeed, during its 1993 screening in Paris, the responses to the film were controversial. Jewish audiences react directly to the issue of Bajou’s unflattering portrait.
Zeitoun, the director, is obviously well aware of the problematic nature of his film. If one defines stereotypes as a short hand or code for pre-supposed, uninformed social interaction, Zeitoun takes us beyond the immediate surface, beyond stereotypes, and works out deep and complex issues and personalities. The picture he finally paints is attentive to details, cultural diversity and gender politics.
I will give one example: once Bajou’s bride, Habibah (played by Delphine Forest) is introduced, the camera forgets Bajou and stays with her. We, the audience, shift position, now identifying with her. By moving away from Bajou (his father) to include the woman’s story (his mother’s), by rejecting linearity, Zeitoun implicitly refuses to judge his parents and his culture. I Bajou, like any other piece of work of art made in a repressed culture, in spite of being individual, private, and intimate, is a projection of a national allegory.
On a historical, economic, political, and cultural level, I Bajou is a reconstruction of colonized reality in North Africa where power and powerlessness play major roles. We, the audience, are also encouraged not to judge. This is an important lesson to remember: cross-cultural exchange is not about making judgment and evaluating “the other” but rather about experiencing difference and participating in it.
The film Zohar (Eran Riklis, 1993) was extremely popular all over Israel. Even though Riklis himself is not Mizrahi, his efforts to portray an authentic Yemenite-Israeli culture should be acknowledged especially in articulating the distinctive local language and body gestures of the community. Zohar is a good film for those who celebrate Middle Eastern Israeli music but have had no real opportunity to understand the context in which this music emerged, or the complexity of the socio-political struggle to produce, record, market, and perform the music.
The Mizrahi music made famous by singers like Zohar Argov in the early 1980s erupted out of the Sephardic/Ashkenazic conflict in Israeli culture at large and, more precisely, out of the lack of space to negotiate and explore a specifically Mizrahi identity. Out of this void came an explosion of Mizrahi cultural creativity. In this invented space a new home was carved out. Even a naive, romantic love scene which we do not think of as overtly political can become a powerful state-ment for claiming freedom, a voice to reassert repressed identity.
The advent and popularity of Mizrahi Israeli music was not about acquiring a voice but rather about having this voice be heard. This was possible only through the establishment of Mizrahi-defined and owned networks of production, marketing and distribution. They did not have a choice; if they had been dependent on the Ashkenazic industry, they might not have been able to produce works of such power and integrity.
Though the film narrates the musical contribution of Zohar Argov, Zohar is essentially about the tragic inability to find home in one’s own body, family, neighborhood, or even in the artist’s community at large. Zohar Argov’s lonely life, which ended with his suicide in a prison cell, inspired the production of two other films and is an allegory of the struggle of all Mizrahim to achieve self-expression in society dominated by the West.
These films begin to redefine Israeli minority culture in a profound way. They provoke and contest the familiar notion of Israel as home, by introducing the disturbing notion of the Israeli Mizrahi as homeless. They pose new theoretical and cultural questions regarding the multiple identities of Israeli Mizrahim. Most important, while they explore new ideas of home, Mizrahi films provide to American, non-Israeli audiences, a window to uncharted landscapes of difference.
The direction for the future must be more films by and about Mizrahim–films that place Middle Eastern and North African Jews at the center. A broader cinematic vision within Jewish-subject film reduces the burden placed on Mizrahi filmmakers to represent Mizrahi culture at large; it validates and encourages Mizrahi audiences who finally get to see their culture on screen; and for the Ashkenazi community and the film community at large, it offers a deeper understanding of the diversity within Jewish culture.
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: meez-RAH-khee, Origin: Hebrew for Eastern, used to describe Jews of Middle Eastern descent, such as Jews from Iraq and Syria.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: ZOE-har, Origin: Aramaic, a Torah commentary and foundational text of Jewish mysticism.