Isaac Cherem, the young Mexican film director, believes that his coming-of-age film Leona might cause a “tsunami” in Mexico’s Syrian-Jewish community.
But it all comes with the territory for the soft-spoken Cherem, who favors “provoking people and opening up debates.”
“I think that’s what makes us move forward,” he says.
The new film marks the 26-year-old’s debut as a director. It recently took the Ha’Seret Ha’Mitztayen (Excellence in Film) Award at the fourth-annual Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival, a five-day event with feature-length works and shorts from several countries, including Israel. The festival also featured a very unusual 1924 Austrian silent film, The City without Jews, accompanied by a live performance of the superb San Francisco-based Sascha Jacobson String Quintet playing an original score.
Cherem’s film, produced in Spanish with English subtitles, explores the story of Ariela, a Jewish girl played very soulfully by Naian Gonzalez Norvind, who is deep in a love affair with Ivan, a non-Jew depicted by Christian Vazquez.
When we first meet her, Ariela is attending a joyous pre-marriage mikveh (ritual bath) ceremony for a friend. With its powerful symbolism, the mikveh sets the stage for what follows in Ariela’s own life – but with a decidedly different finale.
From the very beginning of the film, Ariela’s independent spirit is obvious from her chosen profession as a muralist working on her own. We follow her on one of her projects on the streets of Mexico City. It is here that she meets Ivan, a young man who chances to observe her at work. Christian Vazquez builds Ivan’s character with very skillful subtlety, leading Ariela into the uncharted waters of love.
But as we will soon find out, this liaison is something that Ariela’s family will never accept. What follows is the inevitable struggle of wills and emotions, tradition and change, overshadowed by Ariela’s own resolve, embodied in her Hebrew name, meaning lioness – “Leona” in Spanish. Reflecting on Ariela’s characteristic determination, Cherem emphasizes that the lioness is “The most powerful animal in the Savannah.”
It’s a familiar story, this drama of coming of age. And while the film’s story is obviously very Jewish and based on real events, “the wider context,” Cherem explains, “is the coming of age – the separation between you and your parents.”
Cherem wrote the script for Leona with Norvind, who won Best Actress Award for her role as Ariela at the all-important International Cinema Festival in Morelia, Mexico. As co-writer, she obviously contributed a very important feminine sensitivity to Ariela’s character.
“Sometimes I feel like men built the world for men,” Cherem says. “I’m glad women are getting organized and making their voices heard, because that’s only going to be beneficial for all of us. It was important to me that the protagonist was a female because I feel like the same conflict can be bigger and deeper in a woman than a man.”
CHEREM’S PARENTS and grandparents were all born in Mexico, as was he. His great-grandparents arrived in the country from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus. The director attended Jewish schools in Mexico City, and left to study at the LA Film School in Los Angeles when he was 19.
“I think the Mexican culture is particularly strong,” he notes, “the same way as the Syrian-Jewish culture. And that might be one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult for both to coexist and integrate with one another.
“I hope in the future they can identify more with each other. It isn’t like in the US or Canada, where they are great at including people from different backgrounds into everyday life.”
As Leona unfolds on the screen, it has the very real appearance of a documentary film – which is exactly what Cherem was looking for.
In pursuit of this documentary quality to his film, Cherem chose Diana Garay, a prominent documentary filmmaker in Mexico, to be director of photography “because she could capture reality.”
This adventurous directorial approach included shooting all of the action, except for the final crane scene, with a hand-held camera. “The tripod was completely forbidden on my set,” Cherem says.
Moreover, in his highly-creative nod to documentary, Cherem cast about half of the actors with non-professionals, including his own parents and a rabbi. He spent about two weeks rehearsing them.
“What I did with non-actors was to cast people who were as close to the characters as possible,” he explains. “That way, they barely had to act. It was more just being themselves, and I let them change the dialogues to whatever they wanted. So that helped.”
Cherem has been around movie sets since he was 15, when sympathetic filmmakers offered the eager young student work as a production assistant and script supervisor after school.
He has recently partnered with Salomon Ashkenazi to form Fosforescente, a film production company based in Mexico City (Salomon and Elsa Reyes were the producers of Leona).
Fosforescente’s ambitious mission, stated on its website, is “to change the narrative and perspective of international audiences on Mexican cinema.”
“I think people outside of Mexico want a certain type of film when it comes from Mexico,” says Cherem, who would prefer to “broaden... the spectrum of what Mexican film means” and, for example, take it beyond the topics of violence or the border.
In other words, Mexico in Cherem’s view should be seen as a normal country, reflecting a variety of film genres – much like Israel and Argentina, both of which Cherem praises for filmmaking achievements in more than one genre.
Leona will be screened in Mexico in October 2019, and in the rest of North America in 2020. Cherem predicts “a wide range of feeling about it,” both very negative and very positive from Jewish audiences in Mexico.
“I hope it’s a healthy debate,” says the director, “and I hope it moves us forward.” More information is available at sbjewishfilmfestival.org and fosforescente.mx.
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