Four films that illustrate and illuminate the culture of Israel's Mizrahi citizens
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.