“Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria” is one of those peculiar documentary films that makes a sort of nonsense of everything I know about film and art. On the one hand the film, which is produced, written, directed, shot and edited by Jeff L. Lieberman, is a baggy, often shapeless mess, meandering and repetitive, filled with side roads that lead nowhere and a narration that borders on the amateur.
Despite that, “Re-Emerging” is frequently engaging, often charming and, finally, a very pleasant experience.
The Igbo are one of the larger ethnic groups in modern Nigeria, a nation of 170 million people and over 250 such ethnic configurations. For much of the region’s history, they have been referred to as “the Jews of Nigeria,” a band of overachievers who are the source of much of the brainpower of the country and a subject of much persecution. When they attempted to form a separate nation, Biafra, in the late 1960s, the resulting civil war had dire consequences for the Igbo but, for a moment, they were on the world’s mind, if only as the victims of an attempted genocide.
There have long been rumors of a more direct connection between the Igbo and Judaism, and in a country currently torn apart by Christian-Muslim sectarian violence the idea that a third religious element could emerge is certainly intriguing. And there are many Igbo who believe that those historical rumors are rooted in fact. “I’ve always known the Igbo are Jews,” says Shmuel Tikvah, the central figure of the film.
And he has been acting on that belief for many years now, exploring Judaism through the Internet, teaching himself Hebrew and moving slowly from the Catholicism with which he was raised to Sabbatarianism, a hybrid apparently unique to Nigeria, and finally to Judaism itself. He is one of about 3,000 Igbos (out of a population of 25 million) who are practicing Jews.
As depicted by Lieberman, these Nigerian Jews are a warm and welcoming group, eager for knowledge of and contact with the rest of the Jewish world, vocal supporters of Israel and spirited worshippers, a small but charming community. Those qualities, combined with a refreshing candor, are what make “Re-Emerging” a delight despite its flaws and messiness. Shmuel is a wonderfully earnest young man, determined to get a bona fide Jewish education (he aspires to study for the rabbinate at Jewish Theological Seminary) and to become his nation’s first rabbi. His relationship with the elders of the tiny community is pleasing to watch, and the elders are nothing less than the Nigerian equivalent of the tough but tender Sisterhood ladies and Men’s Club old-timers that you admire in your own congregation.
The problem with “Re-Emerging” is that Lieberman lets his story drag him anywhere; like a child with a short attention span, the film wanders into numerous cul-de-sacs. There is a comparatively lengthy and utterly irrelevant section exploring the Igbo roots of the Geechee/Gullah communities of the Sea Islands of the United States and some eccentric and unconvincing passages attempting to tie the Igbo to Hebrew linguistically and one lost opportunity. More seriously, the film misses an opportunity to explore the function of Christianity in a post-colonial Africa, although it is smart enough to raise the issue. Equally problematic is Lieberman’s fascination with images of children at play; the kids are adorable and the footage is occasionally amusing, but the time could be better spent exploring the children’s lives as outsiders in their native land.
Therein lies the film’s greatest shortcoming. There are numerous questions left unanswered by “Re-Emerging.” Lieberman never offers expert historical testimony regarding the actual nature of the Igbos’ origins, only the kind of folk etymologies that are notoriously unreliable. He never explores why both Israel and the U.S. are so reluctant to grant student visas to Shmuel, or why the Jewish world seems so uninterested in the Nigerian situation. (Indeed, the film is completely lacking in any Israeli responses at all. The closest Lieberman comes is a newspaper headline claiming that the Israeli ambassador to Nigeria approves of the Igbos’ apparent interest.)
And yet, “Re-Emerging” is an entirely amiable film. If only it were a better film, it could be much more.
“Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria,” by Jeff L. Lieberman will be shown at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) Tuesday, June 4 at 7:30 pm. For information, call (646) 505-4444 or go to www.jccmanhattan.org.