Questions asked by Gad Abittan
Question 1: In January, your last film « Algeria, Untold Stories » was shown at the Cinematheque of Jerusalem, and for the second time this year.
Yes, last January, I was in Israel for a part tourist trip with my daughter, and it occurred to me at the last minute to ask them to do that. There were so many people that the film was shown simultaneously in two different rooms. It is a long film, and with the debate added, we only came out at 1:00 a.m.! And I had been told that Jerusalemites went to bed early.
The first time I had come to present this same film was in July, 2008, when it was selected for the International Film Festival of Jerusalem, and there were just as many spectators. The second time, there were more people sitting on the floor than in the seats. You can censure this reply if this flouting of the rules might harm the Cinematheque.
That Festival will remain a milestone in my life. My thanks to Lia van Leer and the other members of the jury. It was this trip that changed my vision of Israel. And yet, I would be dishonest not to admit that accepting that invitation was problematic for me. Israel is a total taboo in the Arab world, even in those countries that have diplomatic relations with it. A Lebanese friend who organizes Festivals begged me to refuse. But since I live in exile, I felt free of the obligation to follow the dictates of my country, and I decided to go.
Of course there are Algerians who go to Israel, but not openly. Three or four years ago, some Algerian journalists went to Israel, undoubtedly with the agreement of the Security Services; yet on their return, they were violently criticized! In Jerusalem I learned that even the feminist, Khalida Messaoudi had gone there, I believe in 1995, at a time when she was combating Islamic extremism as green “fascism”. Since becoming the immovable Minister of Culture of our immovable President of the Republic, she conceived the idea of “dejudaizing Andalusian music”, if we are to believe what she declared to the Algerian press in 2008!!!
Question 2: You said this changed your life?
Yes, my vision of things, and thus my life. I had completely repressed Israel. I should say that in Algeria, Israel is less of an obsession than in other Arab countries. Except in 1967, there were no street demonstrations against Israel. But at that time, as a student in Paris, I did not witness them. At any rate, I repressed it, despite the presence of a maternal uncle, who unfortunately died a few years ago in Ashdod, where he had lived since leaving Oran, I believe in 1961, just after my grandmother’s death. It is therefore a strange shock to walk on the earth, to meet people, heretofore blocked out… And at the same time, I became aware of the extent of my ignorance of the history of the country, of the region and even of Jewish tradition, since until then, my father not being Jewish, I had lived outside any religious culture, my mother observed only the prohibition of lighting a fire on the Sabbath, Shabbat and Yom Kippur… My father, communist and atheist, was extremely tolerant. After Algerian independence, he decided to stay on. There were then literally no more Jews there. They had practically all disappeared!
Question 3: You just published an excellent essay in the magazine Controverses, on “The Jewish Question in Algeria” today (and yesterday)…
Yes, in fact, I began an inquiry into those Jews who had disappeared… The inquiry into “those who disappeared”, Christian French and Jews alike, is nearly the only theme of all my films since, when directly threatened by the Islamic extremists, I had to leave Algeria in 1993. In Algeria, not only the Jews, but all the non-Muslims who had left the country were blocked out of memory. Why had they all left irremediably? It was only when shooting my last film in Algeria that I really understood. I understood that the FLN had 2 strategies, one for the UN and the left: the right of peoples to dispose of themselves. And the other on the spot: terrorism directed essentially against non-Muslims so that they would leave their country “of themselves” even before independence became a fact. The FLN quite consciously practiced a policy of ethnic cleansing. FLN fighters say so openly in front of the camera. Nobody had shown that before me. The film was forbidden and, of course, I expected that. But neither the intelligentsia nor the film-makers protested this censorship. At first, the newspapers allowed me to reply to my critics. Then they censored me as well. At that point, I began to understand that I no longer belonged there.
Question 4: In this film, one part is exclusively devoted to the cohabitation with Jews…
Yes, the 3rd part. It takes place in Constantine. People are remembering Raymond Leyris. Still today, young music lovers consider him the greatest Andalusian musician. He was assassinated on June 22, 1961. But he is so beloved by so many inhabitants of Constantine that, to this day, the FLN is afraid to officially lay claim to that crime! On the wall of a main avenue in the center of Constantine, there are 5 huge portraits of Andalusian musicians. Leyris is not among them! The film begins with this image of the Absent One. But the shock was even greater when an apparatchik-musician dared to declare that “Raymond was not even worth the bullet that killed him”… What shall one say then to the owner of the Hamman where Leyris loved to go and who explains to us that there were different days for Muslims and Jews, because of the latter’s odor!
Hearing that, and remembering that one never referred to a “yahud” without immediately adding “hachek” (to purify oneself), I became aware of the depth of the blight. It goes to the very root. It is the in-depth Muslim imaginary that carries with it the rejection of the Jew. And since Jews are a taboo subject, no Algerian Muslim intellectual has tackled the issue by questioning, even less by modifying, this imaginary. The consequence is that at the slightest crisis with Israel, the least pilgrimage made by Jews who want to revisit their native city, the daily papers, especially the Arabic language ones, (since the end of the one party system in 1989, they are very numerous), let loose and pour out concentrated hatred.
Question 5 : Can one say that your long forgotten or “inactive” Jewish identity, owing to your will to abstract yourself from all “community” spirit and to live fully your multi-ethnic Algerian citizenship in accordance with the principles of the communist dream, is being “awakened”?
Yes, one can say that. My father had brought me up in the idea that Algeria should be independent, but he also said that it would be the Algeria of all Algerians, whatever their religion. But since history does not work that way, instead of taking note of what happened and of trying to understand why, the communists repressed the problem. With their utopia of a fraternal society, communists have difficulty with the reality of identities. And so, by remaining after independence, I suppose that my father – I say “suppose” because unfortunately we never spoke of it – wanted to do what I myself tried to do: by the simple fact of our presence and, in my case, a public presence, with films and articles signed in my name, to feel that we were countering that political will that limited Algerian identity to Arab-Muslims only. In a way, Islamic extremism eliminated that last illusion. And its global success since Khomeiny can only be explained by the fact that it reflects the in-depth imaginary of Muslims. I remember in 1990, one year after political pluralism, Algerian television interviewed me – the first time after 14 years of professional work! – and I insisted on saying that my mother was Jewish. The next day, a neighbor called my son “Dirty Jew”.
Question 6: And in your case, what then finally triggered this “awakening”?
I would say the Gaza War of 2008-2009. But although that triggered it, it was obviously preceded, prepared, by everything I have just said, a general awareness of what Algerian nationalism really was, and of the fact that I had lived as a dhimmi. Dhimmi status, for me, is not only the Muslim discrimination against Jews and Christians; it is the condition of all minorities in the world that cannot express themselves and live freely their own specific identities. Each dhimmi then experiences the Stockholm syndrome. To go on living in that condition, without wanting to commit suicide, or fleeing, one must at best, love one’s executioner, and at the worst, repress one’s own identity.
Question 7: Why Gaza?
Because at that time, my Algerian friends began to send me emails accusing Israel of “butchery”, and of wanting to exterminate the Palestinians. Previously, I would probably have avoided the issue. But at that point, I responded immediately. I reminded them that in 1996, the Islamic extremists had cut the throats of 1200 people in a single night, with knives! And one could hardly talk of “butchery” for the same number of victims, half of whom were Hamas fighters disguised as civilians, and this after 5 weeks of combaIn fact, this figure proved the exact opposite, the extreme care taken by an army, called the ‘Fifth army in the world’, that had intervened in one of the most densely populated parts of the world.
I therefore called on my compatriots to be a little more measured. But when I learned that they had demonstrated side by side with the Hamas in Paris, i.e., side by side with the same people as those who had tried to assassinate them in Algeria and who had forced them to flee, I understood that Israel caused them to lose their minds and their senses.
From then on, relations with my friends became stormy, and, for my part, I realized I could no longer put off studying history. I plunged into it therefore, and have not yet emerged! But at least, I was then able to understand what had happened in that region since the beginning of the 20th century. And I could then speak of Israel without embarrassment. Those of my friends who had not made that effort, remained with their habitual slogans. And then I had a staggering experience: after several exchanges, people beside whom I had fought for 30 years, against totalitarianism, torture, Islamic extremism, let me know that they wanted to break with me definitively. Once again, I saw clearly that Israel and, more generally, the Jewish story, drives people insane!!!
Question 8: Your plans?
You know, since, in order to understand who I am, I have gotten into the habit of making films rather than lying down on a psychiatrist’s couch, my most cherished desire is to make a film in order to understand just why the Jewish story drives people mad! It drives the vast majority of people of Muslim origin, even atheists, to insanity just as it drove the vast majority of people of Christian origin to insanity for 2 thousand years.
Another example of this folly, if you like. Last March, the rebuilding of the Hurva was celebrated, that synagogue that the Jordanian Legion had blown up in 1948 when they took over East-Jerusalem and the old city. Since I now know Jerusalem, it know that the Hurva is at least 400 meters, as the crow flies, from the Al-Aqsa mosque. Can you imagine then that in April, 3 weeks later, my wife received an SMS from a compatriot living in Paris that said, word for word, (I copied the message onto my computer), Tsahal is at this moment destroying the Al Aqsa mosque with 2 bulldozers! Is that not insane? It is not simple disinformation; it is insanity!
Question 9: During your trips to Israel, have you met film-makers? What do you think of Israeli cinema?
During the Jerusalem Festival in 2008, after my film was shown, a spectator stood up to translate the discussion. He was a film-maker of documentaries, Ron Havilio. We very soon became friends. I saw his films afterwards and, in particular, “Jerusalem Fragments”, a magnificent 6 hour documentary, the kind I love, really bewitching, in which Ron has us travel through several centuries of family history, solely by filming Jerusalem and his close relations… A film that French TV should show, if it wanted to enable the French to understand that history and the complex relationship of Jews with the land of Israel.
I also really loved Ajami, because it takes us with no simplistic “good and bad”, through the three Israeli communities, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, and one sees immediately that the latter two function with the same tribal honor codes. I also very much liked Avanim by Nadjari, for much the same reason, a complete absence of simplistic “right and wrong”. The 7 Days by Ronit Elkabaz is another great film, and she is an exceptional actress. I also saw that magnificent documentary in which the dream of a young Druze girl to become Miss Israel fails because of her community’s strict code. I admit it made me cry.
In general, I would say that Israeli cinema is the national cinema that moves me the most. And I who come from an Arab country, dream that all Arab film-makers might have the freedom of expression enjoyed by Israeli film-makers!
Question 10: For having done so once (route 181), how is it that so often in France and elsewhere, one automatically signs petitions as soon as they involve criticizing or vilifying the image of Israel?
I believe I remember being told that this film was refused for the Festival of Paris. And I must undoubtedly have signed. I am decidedly for freedom of expression. Even films that do not respect the rules governing documentaries have the right to be seen, then criticized. I am glad that in Israel this is the case. And I hope that the critics have the same freedom of expression! I just noticed that Israeli intellectuals sent a petition to the Utopia cinema in Toulouse that cancelled an Israeli film, while the French Ministry of Culture itself immediately condemned such an act, committed into the bargain on a film subsidized by the French State!
To return to your question, I believe that one often signs petitions without really knowing the problem. For example, I nearly signed the petition in support of Enderlin. I had met him during the Festival and, at that time, knowing nothing of Israel, his objective tone convinced me. But I was completely ignorant of the fact that he covered the malpractice of his Palestinian cameraman filming a set-up scene as if it were reality. Since then, I saw the German TV film on the issue of the death of Al Dura. Moreover, I am also familiar with Philippe Karsenty’s efforts to establish the truth.
Disinformation and systematic anti-Israeli prejudice surf on well-nigh total ignorance concerning Israel. Public opinion is shaped by the big media, but the majority of intellectuals are as ignorant on this issue as is public opinion.
These intellectuals are clearly comforted by the fact that in Israel even intellectuals and journalists have made a specialty of countering their country systematically. I must say that for me the function of intellectuals is precisely to maintain criticism. I am therefore glad that this possibility of criticism exists in Israel. It is proof of a very strong democratic tradition (the source of which may perhaps be in the Torah, Deuteronomy in particular, that exposes the foundations of what 25 centuries later, are called “Human rights”), and it is all the more amazing since Israel is, in reality, a country at war.
My reproach to these intellectuals therefore is not their critical position, but that they systematically ignore a very simple fact: the more or less bloody dictatorships that dominate the Arab-Muslim world have but one obsession, to eliminate Israel!
This denial of reality is very troubling, because it is the symptom of a disease called the “Stockholm syndrome”. To be surrounded by executioners, soon to be possessed of nuclear weapons, is obviously not an easy situation in which to live daily. Those who lack the courage to resist have indeed only 3 possibilities: to flee, to commit suicide, or to find the torturer very attractive.