'Jews of Egypt' story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community

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'Jews of Egypt' story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community

Post by DJKeefy »

'Jews of Egypt,' scheduled for release in Egyptian cinemas next month.

On a quest to discover how Egyptian Jews went from partners to enemies within the span of a few decades, Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses spent three years researching and shooting a documentary that presents a valuable insight into the nostalgia that haunts the exiled Jewish community. In an interview with Ahram Online, Ramses shares his motivations for tackling this controversial part of history in his latest film.

The filmmaker explains that it all began with an overbearing question – a reflection – over the ingredients that comprise the Egyptian identity. "Like any Egyptian living here within the past ten years, I have been consumed with the quest for defining Egyptian identity," says Ramses.

In light of the current deluge of socio-political conflict and intolerance, it is hard to believe that Muslims lived in peace with fellow Muslims in Egypt’s recent history, let alone with Christians and Jews. Ramses was compelled to make his film to understand the transforming fabric of Egyptian society, and was driven by the question: 'In the eyes of Egyptians, how did the Jews of Egypt go from compatriots to enemies?'

Scheduled to be screened in movie theatres across Cairo in the first week of March, the documentary zooms in on the lives of the Egyptian Jewish community in the first half of the twentieth century, and the key events that shaped their lives: the birth of the state of Israel in 1948; Egypt's 1952 Revolution, which ended the British occupation; and the tripartite attack of 1956, which forced them into exile.

The multi-layered documentary reminds audiences of the influence of Egyptian Jews in various sectors during the first half of the twentieth century, including the art scene – in which Jews such as Laila Mourad, Mounir Mourad and Togo Mizrahi thrived – and the business industry, in which Joseph Cicurel owned a series of major department stores.

Both a historical and personal account, the film weaves testimonials by figures such as Mohamed Abu El-Ghar, author of 'Jews of Egypt: From Prosperity to Diaspora'; sociologist Essam Fawzi; and a Muslim Brotherhood member who participated in the 1947 attack on Jewish shops; together with nostalgic accounts by exiled men and women, mostly residing in Paris.

Along with presenting an account of the lives of politically engaged communists who participated in founding liberal, anti-imperialist movements in Egypt – including a snapshot of famed left-wing political activist and co-founder of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation Henry Curiel (a character who deeply intrigues Ramses) – the film also poignantly presents the candid, heartrending stories of Elie, Andre, Gerard and Isabelle, who were yanked out of their beloved Egypt.

Through a collection of personal contacts in Paris, Ramses was able to access French journalist and Curiel’s son, Alain Gresh, along with relative Jolie Greish, who was the link to Curiel's 'Rome' group, which consisted of exiled communist Jews living in France. The filmmaker was also keen on including testimonials of characters who weren't political, saying that "luck" helped him stumble upon many valuable individuals.

He explains that while most Jews interviewed were eager to appear in the film, one of the estimated 100 Jews still living in Egypt, Albert Raeel, who emerges in the film as a sort of historical guide, was initially reluctant to join the production. Raeel had been living in seclusion and did not necessarily embrace the camera's intervention. "I ended up showing him the film after I finished it, and then he came on board," says the director.

Ramses had been toying with the idea of the film for years, yet the actual research started in late 2008, and they began shooting in 2009. The revolution on 25 January 2011 forced the project to pause, but after a trip to Morocco, the director and his team resumed work for one more year, until the film was finished in September 2012.

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The film was largely self-funded by Ramses and the producer, Haitham El-Khameesy. The pair decided that taking on an Arab or non-Arab sponsor would affect the content and integrity of the film. Limited resources meant that plans to travel to New York and Switzerland to interview ex-members of the Egyptian Jewish community were put off. But these limited resources also expanded the filmmaker’s creative horizons, as Ramses and El-Khameesy were forced to adopt different roles along the way. Ramses reveals that, at times, besides directing the documentary, he was the cameraman, a sound engineer and an editor.

Learning on the job seems to be a habit of the young director. After graduating from the Higher Institute of Cinema, Ramses studied under late iconic Egyptian director Youssef Chahine from 1999-2004, an experience that he describes as "life-changing." The filmmaker admits that he acquired skills during that five-year period that he could not have acquired anywhere else in Egypt.

"I enrolled in the Chahine School, as they call it in the industry, and I graduated a completely different director and different human being," he says. One of the most important lessons Ramses took away from his mentor was the ability to control his mood while creating a film. "I was once very tense and aggressive while directing," Ramses recalls. "But one of the things I learned from Chahine was to take pleasure in my work as I do it, not merely after it’s done."

To prepare for 'Jews of Egypt,' Ramses embarked on a six-month journey of discovery, which he thoroughly enjoyed. The research underlying the film entailed three intertwining strands: finding and interviewing the actual Jews of Egypt, building the historical skeleton, and collecting archival material, including videos and print media. He was not completely oblivious to the historical background and evolution of the Egyptian Jewish community, yet he still was struck by the personal stories he was exposed to while making this film.

"There were details I was completely unaware of and would have never imagined, such as the fact that until this moment, some of them [Egyptian Jews] are still forbidden from returning to Egypt," he says.

Speaking slowly and with a hint of pain detectable behind his little sliver-rimmed glasses, Ramses says he regrets the wide array of cultural barriers and prejudices hindering peaceful coexistence in contemporary Egyptian society, and "sending us back to the Middle Ages."

"We are in a very dark place," Ramses says. "Egyptian society has become pre-emptively racist. They fear and shun ‘the other’ until proven otherwise."

Ramses reveals that a sense of alienation is a recurring theme in his work. "Like any average Egyptian citizen, of course I have a sense of alienation... internally, and within your society."

Saddened by the various political and religious stereotypes and misconceptions pervading Egyptian society, the filmmaker sought to challenge the constant mix up between the following labels: 'Israel,' 'Judaism' and 'Zionism.'

So far, the film has been attacked sporadically in the press, mostly in the form of 'normalization with Israel' accusations, but the filmmaker has not received death threats or direct attacks. Yet the film's avant-première took place in what Ramses calls a "blatantly intellectual context," during the Panorama of the European Film, in October 2012. 'Jews of Egypt' was also screened in the Arab Camera Festival held in Rotterdam in winter 2012, and at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January 2013.

The real test of the public's reaction will be when the film comes out in Egyptian movie theatres in a couple of weeks. Ramses, for his part, says he welcomes criticism. "If the film stirs debate, or stimulates discussion…well, that’s a main reason why I made it," he says.

Source: http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/65504.aspx


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Re: 'Jews of Egypt' story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community

Post by LovelyLadyLux »

Sounds like an interesting production. Would be equally fascinating doing research for any type of factual movie production.

Wonder how the researchers ensure they are as objective as possible?

Saw on TV here this morning re: ARGO that Iran wants to people who made it to go to Iran and apologize to the Iranian people for all the errors in the movie.

I know that when I was a documentary movie production and I have factual knowledge of the subject matter I appreciate when there is attention to details. I sometimes do not like the artistic licence filmmakers take cause sometimes they really grab a fistful.

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Re: 'Jews of Egypt' story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community

Post by Hafiz »

The Director will be up against it trying for a cinema release for a lengthy (?) documentary anywhere, and least likely in Egypt. He would know this and, therefore, his claims of release in a number of Cairo Cinemas is probably hype. I'll check the Al Ahram film guide. If the film has an audience it will be in the west.

Whatever the subject, Egyptians don't watch a lot of documentaries on TV or in cinemas and the few they do aren't balanced and fair-minded ones.If it could be done, and I doubt it could, well researched and balanced TV documentaries on contemporary problems could help to inform Egyptians about their country and balance the shrill and biased political information. This seems not to be Mr Ramses's objective.

Mr Ramses, who I assume is well intentioned, joins a long list of Egyptians and Westerners who focus on the glamorous past of cosmopolitan and colonial Egypt and Alex. He forgets that one of the reasons why it disappeared and was replaced by intolerance to minorities was that the rich Jewish, Armenian, Greek, Syrian, English, Italian etc communities had collaborated with the English Colonial power (to their huge advantage) and with the King. Many of them had come to Egypt with colonialism or had been protected from Egyptians by the Turkish Sultan, Muhammad Ali and later the English and were used to 'modernize' Egypt. They also lived very high on the hog, made fortunes very quickly, mixed very little with Egyptians, had their own courts and schools, operated under their national legal systems, had their own exclusive suburbs, possessed more political and economic power than all but a handful of rich Egyptians, opposed Nassr, and adopted few if any of the customs and habits of Egyptians. Their charity was almost exclusively to their own racial communities and I've have never read of any of the major families ever marrying an Egyptian.

The Alexandria Quartet tells you a bit about it but by World War 2 its glamor had declined and the money to be made in land, tobacco and cotton speculations was not what it had been. There were also less wealthy 'outsiders' but their fate after 1956 was one of guilt be association.

"Racism and fear of others' decried by Mr Ramses is also connected with the the establishment of Israel and the following wars. Unless I'm mistaken racism and fear of others is not confined to Egypt and, in this case, they were 'others' because most or all kept a second or third nationality insisted on being non nationals of Egypt. Whilst many Jews were pushed some may have been pulled to Israel after its establishment and some like the richest family in Alex. (de Maistre) actively conspired and helped fund the establishment of Israel.

In Egypt, this subject will likely get a poor reception because it deals with matters the Egyptians do not regret. Mr Ramses's use of old expatriate communists in France will just confirm Egyptian (and other) views that their leaving was a good idea.

I am sure that, in the west, nostalgia for the colonial past lingers but probably not in Egypt.

An after thought. Cahine, whom Ramses studied under, used film melodrama to deal with social issues and he was very successful without being preachy. Maybe melodrama is the way to Egyptian hearts and to their minds?

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Re: 'Jews of Egypt' story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community

Post by LovelyLadyLux »

Very interesting insights Hafiz.

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Re: 'Jews of Egypt' story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community

Post by BENNU »

Well, it has been banned.

"This ambitious interesting documentary was going to be the second Egyptian documentary to be screened commercially in Egyptian selected cinemas. Its official release was supposed to be tonight but just as we are waiting for its release we found out that it was banned."


http://egyptianchronicles.blogspot.com/ ... onicles%29

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Re: 'Jews of Egypt' story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community

Post by Hafiz »

Thank you Bennu - I'd lost track of this one. Egyptian Chronicles is a great little site with interesting views on urban development as well as politics.

The report in The Independent http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/di ... ptian-jews states that he will appeal the decision in the courts which seems a very good thing and a good time to be testing whether the law protects (at least some) free speech. The US takes a very keen interest in these things and the courts and the government would be aware of this so his chances might be better than you think.

I’m not unsympathetic to him but my gut feel is that he won’t follow through on legal proceedings and instead use the international coverage http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/mar ... -community to make himself into a hero/victim at film festivals. Should I open a 'book' on this one?

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