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