Paris, occupied France, 1942. Younes, an uneducated Algerian immigrant, ekes out a very modest living on the black market. When the police catches him they set him free provided he infiltrates the Paris Mosque and spies on the rector. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is indeed suspected not only of providing false papers to Jews but of harboring some of them as well. Once within the precincts of the Mosque, Younes proves a poor secret agent, which displeases the police inspector in charge of him. In fact, at the mosque, Younes becomes every day more alert to the great tragedy in progress because of the Nazis. He also develops a deep friendship with a singer named Salim Halali. To his amazement, he discovers that Salim is both Jewish and homosexual... Written by
Among the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial of Ha Shoah or Holocaust, the names of Arabs who saved Jews are absent. Even Morocco's Mohammed V, who, defying Vichy authorities, put his 650,000 Jewish subjects under the Sherifian throne's protection and saved them not only from wearing the dreaded Yellow Star but as a community, has no place among the Righteous.
In his own way, Ismaël Ferrouki is trying to correct this historical omission.
The Franco-Moroccan film maker's Les Hommes Libres or Free Men opened quietly at New York's Quad Cinema on Friday March 16. The film is set in Paris at a time of a great moral dilemma when Jews were being rounded up by the French police for extermination camps. And in this dark hour of French indifference to these arrested, the rector of la Mosque de Paris Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, subtly played by Michel Lansdale, provided certificates to mainly, but not exclusively, to North African Jews, which attested that they were Muslims.
Bengharit plays a cat-and-mouse game with the Nazi authorities and the collaborationist Pétain representatives to give aid and comfort to Jews, whom, as he says, "are one of us."
The presence of North African Jews and Muslims in France has much to do with French colonialism. For, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were under France's control; the need for workers attracted North Africans to metropolitan France; money earned there would be sent back to support families.
Ferrouki's conceit has become controversial; his theme is based on oral history, anecdotes and some written testimony. Algerian-born Jewish historian Benjamin Stora has acted as an adviser on Free Men.
Owing to the current climate of fear created since 9/11 and growing criticism of Israel, the very idea of a picture about Muslim saving Jews might seem aberrant if not perverse. And yet, the wife of Holocaust survivor and Peace-prize Nobelist Élie Wiesel, herself saved by Tunisian Muslims has unsuccessfully appealed to have her benefactor added to the list of the Righteous.
The film's moral authority centers around friendship among Ben Ghabrit, Younis , a black marketer, admirably portrayed by Tahir Rahm, and the Algerian Jewish singer Salim Halali (Mahmoud Shalaby, an Israeli Arab) who has the voice of an angel.
Halali sings in Arabic. His songs' lyrics help move the film's narrative; they set the mood of war's terrors and dangers even though they are at heart love songs.
To Americans, Jews singing in Arabic may seem an anomaly. Nonetheless, the Sephardim in North Africa spoke Arabic. Unfamiliar to Americans as well are the names, say, of the Algerian Enrico Macias, the blind Reinette l'Oranaise and the Moroccan cantor Sami El Maghribi, who sang in Arabic.
Running through Free Men is the thread of resistance against Fascism and colonialism among a handful of French and Algerians. Some knowledge of French and North African history would be helpful here: the name of Messali El Hadj, considered the father of Algeria's nationalist movement, is central to Franco-Algerian resistance in fighting for democracy.
El Hadj's manifesto considered Jew and Muslim equal and part and parcel of the Algerian community. His unfulfilled hope was that at war's end France would accord Algerians full and equal rights.
Younes slowly comes around to joining the resistance. He sees in Salim, not a Jew, but an Algerian soul mate, a mirror of his own identity. Ben Ghabrit provides Salim the means of survival in order to outwit the French police after his arrest.
The film's story is told with simplicity and convincing honesty. An old Moroccan palace was transformed into the Paris Mosque.
Les Hommes Libres should be seen if only to see a slice of North African Jewish and Muslim fraternity. Perhaps, it is hoped, it may spur the American film goer to read about North African history.
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