It is an absurd mistake to think there is such a thing as “Sephardic” culture. On the contrary, there are many Sephardic cultures, almost as distinct from one another as fingerprints, certainly as different as the similarly variegated Ashkenazi cultures.
A look at the program for this year’s New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, which opens on March 12, should serve as a vivid reminder of that basic reality. The musical traditions of Algeria on display in the opening-night screening of “El Gusto” are utterly unlike the musical culture outlined in the program of shorts on the Bukharian Jews of Queens, or the Moroccan music of “Khoya: Jewish Morocco Sound Party,” another festival event.
The musical connections always seem to come to the fore in this series, but gradually the festival has also risen in stature to the point where it usually screens several films that will be theatrically released. Three of this year’s films are particularly worthy of mention.
With the 1995 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires back in the news, this is a fortuitous moment for the release of “God’s Slave,” a taut thriller directed by Joel Novoa Schneider. The film is a Venezuelan-Argentine co-production, which is appropriate because one of its central characters is a sleeper agent working in Caracas who will be sent to Argentina on a terrorist mission. Novoa, himself a Venezuelan, offers a pair of protagonists: Ahmed (Mohammed Alkhaldi), a Muslim militant whose parents were assassinated during the Lebanese Civil War, and David (VandoVillamil), a Mossad operative who saw his older brother killed in a suicide bombing in 1967.
Novoa keeps the two apart for almost 50 minutes, with Ahmed building a life for himself as a doctor, husband and father in Caracas before being called to Buenos Aires by his controller, while the bulk of David’s screen time is spent tracking terrorist threats against the Jewish community of the Argentine capital. Novoa interweaves their activities quite deftly, thanks in no small part to a terse but evocative screenplay by Fernando Butazzoni. When their paths finally do cross, it is a collision with ramifications that echo for several minutes. Not surprisingly, the second and last time they come together is the film’s impressively staged climax, a modest, efficient gunfight that is the culmination of a series of betrayals.
By its very nature, “God’s Slave” is a bit schematic and it never messes up its plot points or reversals. But there is some awkward signposting that reaches a particularly egregious apex in the film’s last shot with rather blunt visualization of the idea of revenge being passed down the generations. Despite that, the film is an effective and compulsively watchable genre piece.
Both “Orange People,” the directorial debut of actress Hanna Azoulay Hasfari, and “The Dove Flyer,” Nissim Dayan’s adaptation of Eli Amir’s novel, also revolve around issues of heritage and generational transmission of cultures and attitudes. In that regard they fit quite nicely with the documentaries in this year’s festival.
The Hasfari film is a particularly pointed illustration of these issues, with the director (and writer) herself playing one of a pair of sisters whose lives have been buffeted by the manipulations of their mother Zohara (Rita Shukrun), who wants to pass on her apparent psychic powers to Simone (Esti Yerushalmi). In her zeal to ensure that line of succession, she drove a wedge between Simone and her beloved sister Fanny (Hasfari), but now that Fanny has returned to Jaffa after a 16-year absence, things are starting to percolate again.
The pivot points for this devious triangle are the sisters’ shared love of Simone’s husband and their love of cooking. The idea of people bonding in the kitchen is becoming one of the leading clichés of recent film, and while Hasfari has little to add to this already creaking trope, the scenes in which the two sisters engage in culinary arts are quite charming.
Otherwise it’s a bit hard to know what to make of “Orange People.” It has a complicated plot reminiscent of old Warner Brothers chestnuts like “The Old Maid” and “The Great Lie,’ poised a bit uneasily between screwball comedy and family melodrama. And it has definite, undoubtedly intentional echoes of “Sh’Chur,” the 1994 film that Hasfari wrote and her husband Shmuel Hasfari directed. That was also a film about the adaptations necessary for Moroccan Jews to adjust to Israeli society and modernity, and it even included Hasfari and Yerushalmi in its cast. But “Sh’Chur” was a rigorous and unsentimental film, while “Orange People” looks at similar situations through candy-colored spectacles.
Which certainly couldn’t be said of “The Dove Flyer,” which examines how one family is affected by the disintegration of the Iraqi Jewish community in the early 1950s, when virtually all of its members fled to the newly formed Jewish state. Kabi (Daniel Gad) is a handsome and talented high schooler whose father and uncle are involved to varying degrees with the Zionist underground in Baghdad. When Hazkel (Eli Dor Haim), the uncle, is arrested by the secret police, it falls to Kabi and his dad Salman (Igal Naor) to try to secure his release and to reassure Hazkel’s much younger and very beautiful wife Rachelle (Yasmin Ayun).
This drama is played out against a series of other, interlocking conflicts — the Zionists and Communists jockeying for position in the Jewish community, Kabi dealing with adolescent hormones and a growing infatuation with his aunt, and the deteriorating situation for Iraqi Jews. Dayan manages to interweave these disparate elements convincingly; a smartly fragmented mise-en-scene suggests the dilemma of people trying to find their way in a world in which their vision is invariably limited by circumstance (often literally), forcing them to act on rumor and supposition with frequently disastrous results. As the historical forces at play close off options for action, the impaired perceptions of the film’s characters have increasingly ominous consequences. In the film’s first half, in particular, Dayan works these themes out quite beautifully, if the second half is a bit less satisfying as he must move things to their inevitable conclusion. Overall, “The Dove Flyer” is ambitious, intelligent and largely successful as a rumination on how history trumps personal need.
The 18th annual New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, presented by the American Sephardi Foundation, will take place March 12-19 at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.). For information, go to www.nysephardifilmfestival.org or call (212) 868-4444.