Right before Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses made headlines with his Jews of Egypt
documentary currently showing in Egyptian theatres, on the other end of Africa, in Tinghir in Morocco's Atlas Mountains, another young director, Kamal Hachkar delves into Berber origins that blends in both Jews and Muslims alike.
"Tinghir, Echoes From The Mellah is set to breathe life back into the richness and diversity of a Berber culture which had, for a time, been a Judeo-Islamic melting pot," Hachkar comments on his film, which debuted at Tangier Film Festival in Morocco last month and won Best Work by a New Director.
Hachkar tells Ahram Online: "My film carries a message of peace. It is a hymn to diverse cultures that create an identity like that of the Mediterranean, which gave birth to great civilisations.
"It is extraordinary that we, young filmmakers, revisit our plural heritage. One cannot simply erase 3000 years of Jewish history in Morocco," he argues. He believes his film will document history for the new generations to come.
From infancy and throughout his childhood, Hachkar resided in France with his parents, spending their summer holidays in their Moroccan hometown Tinghir. His fascination with the Berber heritage grew when his grandparents told stories of the old Berber community of Tinghir that included Jews. "As a child, it never occurred to me that the Berbers of Tinghir had any Jewish background," Hachkar recalls.
Four years in the making, Hachkar dove deeper into the topic that has become a passion that grew with every visit to Tinghir. He cast his net wider and wider, meeting Jews of Berber origin in France and Tel Aviv.
The Tinghir, Echoes from The Mellah documentary goes back into the memory of older generations in Mellah, what was a Jewish district in Tinghir. Hachkar accompanies current Tinghir residents through the narrow alleys to a block of flats that once was the synagogue. He listens to stories, music and folkloric songs that one day represented the Berber of Tinghir, despite their different religion.
"Everyone still remembers the pessah bread or chtoto in Berber, which Jews would offer Muslims during Passover," Hachkar declares.
Then on, Hachkar flies to Israel in search of Berber immigrants. "I filmed some Tinghir Jews in Israel… They still speak Arabic and Berber… They still sing songs of Tinghir… and hope to return home, especially the youth," he says.
"I found that after fifty years in Israel, these Jewish Berbers have not forgotten their language, their culture. They define themselves as Moroccan and devote to their homeland a love without fault," he discovers.
Towards the end of the 1960s, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict grew so large that Morocco, once home to over 300,000 Jews, according to the Associated Press, is currently left with a fraction. "In Morocco, we still have a Jewish community; certainly small but very active and many return in pilgrimages," Hachkar claims.
"And unlike in Egypt, Moroccan Jews were never evicted by the regime," Hachkar asserts. Gamal Abdel Nasser, in line with his ideas of Arab nationalism in Egypt, to Hachkar was, "a great Zionism ally. Nasser expelled the Jews to Israel."
Amazingly, during his visit to Israel, Hachkar met with Egyptian Jews, "who have nothing left but their memories of Egypt and the music of Om Kalthoum," he says.
At the film screening in Tel Aviv he says "an Egyptian Jew came to see my film and [told me] he dreams of returning to Egypt," he recalls.
But Hachkar, dreadfully considers that whether Morocco or Egypt, "both countries, instead of protecting their Jewish minorities, drove them away."
Now that the Moroccan constitution has recognised the plurality of identities, including Jews, Hachkar reckons, "We must move forward and implement such notions in schools so as to prevent the growth of a mindless generation."
Despite the constitutional amendment left wing political groups and Islamists protested against Tinghir, Echoes from The Mellah on 26 February at the Tangier Film Festival. Protesters claimed that director Hachkar was promoting normalisation of relations with the Jewish state.
To this Hachkar says to Ahram Online, "Those protestors object without watching the film. I kindly ask them to watch it first then judge, and I thank the Moroccan Cinematographic Centre (CCM) for supporting my work."
He doesn't always have full support, however. "The communications minister boycotted the ceremony because of my film's presence in the festival," he reveals.
"I am glad that my film opened this debate in Moroccan society," he concludes in his interview with Ahram Online.
Tinghir, Echoes from The Mellah is Hachkar's first film and was well-received, according to the young director, in New York, Tel Aviv and Morocco. "Thanks Reda Benjalloun who co-produced the film has managed to get it broadcasted on Moroccan television channel as well," Hachkar says.
The film will participate in the Oriental Film Festival in Geneva next month, to be followed by a number of screenings in Marseille, Brussels, Los Angeles and Morocco. Hachkar is currently writing a sequel for Tinghir, Echoes from The Mellah, where he follows the return of some Jewish families from Israel to Tinghir.