Mizrahi Film

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

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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.

I Bajou

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.

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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.