Being Jewish In France

An image from "Being Jewish in France."
From July ’09 Spotlight: Being Jewish in France is a three-hour documentary released in 2007 and recently acquired by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. After sold out screenings in New York, NCJF is now distributing it nationally. We can see it here in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street during a weeklong run from July 24 through July 30.

French director Yves Jeuland has set himself a huge task. Part I, “From the Dreyfus Affair to Vichy,” is a 73 minute chronicle of highs and lows from the point Jews officially became citizens of France to the point the French government collaborated in shipping its Jewish citizens to Nazi Death Camps (some still wearing metals received for service to the state during WWI). Part II, “Liberation to Today” spends another 112 minutes documenting what happened when the survivors returned, culminating in Ariel Sharon’s infamous 2004 speech urging French Jews to make aliyah.

Jeuland is to be commended for his impressive filmmaking skills, punctuating “talking head” interviews with rare news footage, photos, and film clips, but I think the whole would have been more effective had he focused his energies on the period after WWII.

While he does a masterful job of integrating the stories of Jews forced to leave Algeria and other North African countries newly liberated from colonial domination (resulting in an Ashkenazi/ Sephardi culture clash well known in Israel if not here), Jeuland says nothing at all about the trial of Klaus Barbie and makes only passing reference to the Suez Crisis in 1956.

The Siskel Center plans to show both parts together for a single admission price, but I doubt they’ll turn you away if you arrive just for Part II during the 15-minute intermission. The history of these years is not well-known here in the United States, and Jewish-Americans will benefit from learning more about how our post-WWII history compares to France’s specifically with respect to internal “identity politics” as well as support for Israel through multiple wars from Independence to the Second Intifada.

To order tickets, visit: www.SiskelFilmCenter.org. Also add Karin Albou’s award-winning film La Petite Jerusalem to your Netflix queue. Jeuland begins Part II with a scene from this haunting film about a Tunisian woman and her two daughters (both born in France), so it’s definitely relevant. To read my review, visit: http://www.films42.com/columns/Petite-Jerusalem.asp.

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