Conjuring up a different image

New York’s Sephardic Film Festival offers a broad Jewish education, highlighting Tunisian, Ethiopian and Chilean ancestry.

revivre 311 (photo credit: Full Moon Productions)
revivre 311
(photo credit: Full Moon Productions)
NEW YORK – If you got all your information from the movies, you’d probably conclude that most of Jewish history took place in New York, Eastern Europe or LA (although not necessarily in that order).
But just as film can create misconceptions, it can also help to correct them – which is part of the guiding spirit behind New York’s Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. As it prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the festival, opening today, seeks to highlight Jews with roots outside Europe and North America – a population that makes up roughly half of world Jewry.
Mixing comedy with drama and history with the contemporary, the weeklong festival will unreel mostly at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street, and offers a glimpse at life in countries as varied as Yemen and Tunisia, Ethiopia and Chile.
Held once every two years when it first began, the Sephardic Jewish Film Festival now runs yearly, and will kick off its 14th lineup with the New York premiere of Coco, a boisterous bar mitzva comedy that proved a major hit last year in France. Starring comedian Gad Elmaleh as the title character, the film tells the story of a wealthy businessman who goes colorfully overboard while planning his son’s lavish bar mitzva. Amusing in its details, the ostentatious Coco wears rhinestones on his designer footwear.
Full of slapstick and other broad gags, Coco apparently offered educational content to many French filmgoers, who, if their onscreen counterparts are any indication, don’t know what a bar mitzva is.
The film pays tribute to Jewish tradition, showing its protagonist kiss his fingers and lay them on a mezuza as he enters a Parisian office building. (Realism, one suspects, is not the film’s strong suit: how many French office towers bear mezuzot?)
Born in Morocco in 1971, years after most of the country’s Jews had left for Israel or France, Elmaleh achieved stardom in Paris much later, following a period spent studying in Montreal. Although the comedian occasionally performs stand-up in the US, his films have made little impact on this side of the Atlantic – although this will change next year with the release of The Adventures of Tintin, an adaptation of the classic comic series that is being brought to the big screen by Steven Spielberg.
ELSEWHERE IN the film festival lineup, highlights include Mashala and Fiesteramos, each of which examines Sephardi musical traditions in a variety of communities.
In Honor, an Israeli movie enjoying its American premiere, Moroccan-Jewish crime families face off in a mishmash of Hebrew, French and Moroccan Arabic. (Weapons are also involved). The film will be presented by veteran Israeli director Haim Bouzaglo, who will also attend screenings of Revivre, his two-part drama about Jews from North Africa, France and Poland making their way to pre-state Israel.
“Sephardi,” traditionally, has referred to Jewish communities in Spain and the Muslim world – it literally means “Spanish” in Hebrew – but the word’s meaning at the festival will be expanded to “everything that’s not Ashkenazi,” says Lynne Winters, the director of programming for the American Sephardi Federation, one of the festival’s host organizations.
Ashkenazim – Jews with ancestry in Europe – are already dominant in American movie depictions of Jewry, and the festival represents “a broad umbrella” for Jews of other backgrounds, Winters says.
Although not typically considered Sephardi, Israel’s Ethiopian population falls into the festival’s broader-than-usual definition. In Across the River, director Duki Dror examines AIDS and HIV among Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants, following activist Moshe Rahamim as he battles widespread denial of the problem within the community.
The broader challenges of acclimatizing to life in Israel animate the festival’s closing-night documentary, Children of the Bible, about the efforts of a musician to instill Ethiopian pride in his younger counterparts. Originally produced for Israeli television, the film gives viewers a taste of Amharic – a cousin of Hebrew and Arabic in the Semitic family of languages. (All festival films contain subtitles.)
With additional movies set in Tunisia, Yemen and Spain, the festival offers Sephardi New Yorkers a relatively rare opportunity to view their heritage onscreen. “They get a kick out of seeing their culture on film,” Winters says of past festival-goers.
At the same time, she says, the festival serves an additional purpose – to expose newcomers to a sizable swathe of Jewish culture they may not have previously encountered.
The festival’s educational mission, she says, is partly “to change the vision – what’s conjured up when you say something is Jewish.”