Sunday, March 30, 2008

Moroccan film focuses on mass Jewish exodus

When Moroccan filmmaker Hassan Benjelloun was a boy, he went out in the street one day to discover that half his neighbours had disappeared. Their doors were all shuttered. "I ran to my mother and asked, 'Why are the doors shut?' " he recalled in a recent interview, in French, from Casablanca. "She told me, 'They have all gone to Palestine.' It was the first time I had ever heard of Palestine."

The Jewish exodus from Morocco in the 1960s, which decimated an ancient community, and separated friends, neighbours and business partners, has rankled Benjelloun ever since. As Morocco became increasingly liberalized in the 1990s, the filmmaker worked his way through the sore spots of his country's recent history, making feature films about the brutal political repression of the 1970s and the subjugation of women.

Inevitably, he turned to the subject of the exodus. The result, surprisingly, is a bittersweet comedy entitled Où vas-tu Moshé? (Where Are You Going, Moshe?), a Moroccan-Canadian co-production. It is one of four Moroccan films in the French-language festival CinéFranco now under way in Toronto, and it will also enjoy a wider release in late April.

The film suggests that both the government of Morocco, independent since 1956, and the young state of Israel were complicit in getting all but a few thousand of Morocco's 260,000 Jews to immigrate clandestinely in the early 1960s. But its story focuses on the little people buffeted by forces larger than themselves: If all the Jews of Bejjad leave town, and the local council succeeds in its program of Islamification, poor Mustapha will lose his bar licence. Luckily for him, the old watchmaker and musician Shlomo can't make up his mind to go, and he soon finds himself courted by the devout and the drinkers alike.
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The film portrays Moroccan Jews and Muslims living side by side, all speaking the mix of Arabic and French that is characteristic of North Africa. In one scene that surely owes much to Benjelloun's childhood memories, a young boy whose family is sneaking away at night runs back upstairs, bursts into the neighbouring apartment, and throws himself into the arms of the little Muslim friend from whom he cannot bear to be parted. "I wanted to remove the confusion of Jew and Zionist," says the filmmaker. "Today, if you say Jewish [in the Arab world], you mean Zionist. ... They were our friends and our neighbours."

If Benjelloun depicts a happy co-existence with which greater powers saw fit to meddle, his fellow filmmaker Mohamed Ismail is more inclined to believe there was prejudice in both communities. His treatment of the exodus is a family melodrama, Adieu mères (Goodbye Mothers), that shows anti-Semitism on the rise, and includes a Jewish-Muslim Romeo and Juliet who meet with disapproval on both sides.

On the other hand, that film's other central characters are the Jewish sawmill operator Henry and his Muslim partner, Brahim, who is tragically forced to keep a promise of eternal friendship when Henry drowns along with a boatload of other immigrants on their way to Israel. "I don't know any other Arab country where you could make a film like this, about tolerance and living together," said Ismail, from Casablanca, and also speaking in French.

"There is no censorship," he added, "but one practises self-censorship." He says his films are never cut or banned, but he thinks no Moroccan filmmaker would attempt a movie critical of Islam or of Morocco's monarchy, which is constitutional but does yield real power.

"One has to be careful how one says things," agrees Anne-Marie Gélinas, the Montrealer who is the Canadian co-producer of Where Are You Going, Moshe? She points out, for example, that Benjelloun was not permitted to call his film My Brother the Jew, the first title he suggested. That said, the Moroccan government is paying the filmmakers' way to Toronto to attend CinéFranco.

"Morocco can't approach globalization without resolving certain things in its memory, without looking into its history," Benjelloun says. That is precisely what various Moroccan filmmakers are doing, profiting from the relative openness of the current regime. The festival also includes the provocative drama Islamour (the title combines Islam and amour, French for love.) It's a new film from Saad Chraibi about a Moroccan émigré and his American wife who return to his homeland in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to discover that, although he suffered from racism in the West, they both encounter problems in the Arab world. Another film on the festival program is Les Jardins de Samira (Samira's Garden), an almost Dickensian tale in which a contemporary young woman agrees to marry a wealthy widower only to find herself trapped in domestic servitude. The film, by director Latif Lahlou, is intended as a critique of arranged marriage and the patriarchal nature of Moroccan society.

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