Sephardic Film

Films by and about Middle Eastern and North African Jews in Israel

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Increasing Mizrahi Cultural Consciousness

Throughout the 1970s, after years of silence, assimilation or attempts to assimilate, Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African origin, began to address through various art forms, issues of collective and individual memory, language, and identity; ethnic, national, and religious. The increasing volume of creative works, in and out of Israel, include literature, art, theater, film, and even newly-invented ritual practices related to religion and beliefs.

Currently, in the relatively more open climate for diversity in Israel, with the increased power that Mizrahim have gained, ethnicity itself is gaining more legitimacy. However, folklore and traditionality still remain associated with this non-Western "ethnicity," while "culture" remains associated with the dominant European culture.

Not surprising, one of the new developments reflected in films by and about Middle Eastern and North African Jews is the active role that they themselves play in the different stages of production.

One of the major changes these four films highlight is a new representation of Mizrahim which tends to move away from the limited paradigm of the past. In this paradigm Sepharadim and Ashkenazim are set up as binary oppositions. Sephardic culture is the counter image of what is perceived as Israeli Sabra culture.

Earlier Films

The simple, anonymous, depersonalized Sephardic characters we find in previous films such as Sallah Shabati (Ephraim Kishon, 1964), and Beyond the Walls (Uri Barbash, 1984) are now replaced with complex, personalized, particular personas. The narrative opens up to include the perspectives of children, old people, the intimate life of women, the distinctive music, food, body gestures, and forgotten history and geography in which Jews lived in co-existence with Arabs.

This direction in films is not totally new. Earlier films such as The House on Chelouche Street (Moshe Mizrahi, 1975), Pillar of Salt (Haim Shiran, 1980); documentaries such as Routes of Exile: A Moroccan Jewish Odyssey (Eugene Rosow, 1982); ethnographies such as The Last Marranos (Frederic Brenner and Stan Neumann, 1990), I Miss the Sun (Mary Halawani 1984) or Trees Cry for Rain (Bonnie Burt, 1989) were all important milestones along the way which did not get enough public attention and, as in the case of Moshe Mizrahi's films, were not really understood by film reviewers of the time.

Recent Films

Most noticeable in recent films by and about Mizrahim is the search for home, a theme that recurs explicitly or implicitly and in different levels of abstraction throughout. For all Jews and for all Israelis, "place" is a problematic and complex concept. Israel as place stands for a geographical territory over which wars are fought. It is also a concept synonymous with God itself, "makom" in Hebrew; philosophically, it is an object of yearning--like the Messiah and the Holy Grail--a place that will never be reached, a concept that evokes the painful dialectic of exile and homeland.

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Ruth Tsoffar

Ruth Tsoffar is an assistant professor of Hebrew Literature, Language, and Culture in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.