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

Sara Elkamel, Monday 25 Feb 2013

Ahram Online talks to Amir Ramses, director of new documentary 'Jews of Egypt,' scheduled for release in Egyptian cinemas next month

Jews of Egypt
Director Amir Ramses. Photo: Courtesy of Ramses

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.

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.

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