Like “Forget Baghdad”, “The Jews of Egypt” is a loving tribute to the Arab anti-Zionist Jew and also directed by an Arab. In an article for Counterpunch last May (http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/03/voices-of-the-mizrahim/), I described Samir’s “Forget Baghdad” as both a valuable portrait of Mizrahi life as well as Communist oral history in the style of “Seeing Red”.
In the director’s notes for “The Jews of Egypt”, Amir Ramses explains why he made the film:
Four years ago, after three feature films, I decided to pursuit an old dream of mine, making a film about another Egypt I have known only in books and films, an Egypt where Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists lived next to one another in full tolerance. A cosmopolitan Egypt or as my professor with whom I worked many years as an assistant the outstanding director “Youssef Chahine” used to say to me: “in Alexandria in the 40s when we saw a pretty girl in the street, we never wondered about her religion before trying to hit on her”, funny as he was, that’s how he summarized the Glory and joy of pre 1952 Egypt.
As for me, I grew up in a society where when you say the word “Jewish” it always combined with “Zionist , Israeli” and of course as soon as you say these words, hatred appears, yet I was always fascinated by Singer Laila Mourad, Musician Mounir Mourad and others like Youssef Darwish who all were amongst the most important persons each in his field in Egypt and all 3 were Jewish–that contradiction between modern intolerant Egypt and cosmopolitan Egypt in the first half of the 20th century is what led me to make this film .
Not all the interviewees are Communists but each has a fascinating story to tell. What they all have in common, however, is a certain “rootless cosmopolitanism” that defined life in a city like Smyrna before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. One older woman who was forced into exile after Nasser took power (his policies toward Jews were depressingly similar to Ataturk’s “Turkification”) says that she loved Alexandria because it was a gumbo where all races and religions interacted with each other and made each other better. After decades of living in “civilized” France, she never felt nearly as happy as she was in Egypt.
All of the interviewees were living in exile except one. Now in his 80s and a veteran Communist who converted to Islam in order to be able to be more effective politically, Albert Aryeh is the virtual star of the film as he reflects back on a lifetime of activism and his complex relationship to Egyptian identity. Never at a loss for words, Aryeh muses: “I’m not a fan of Om Kalthoum, to be honest, and yet I am still here. And many of the others who simply loved her aren’t.”
His attitude toward the exclusionary policies that set in after the Zionist state was created is a mixture of philosophical resignation and disappointment over the stupidity of Nasserite rule. After he married a Muslim woman (ostensibly for love rather than political expediency), the police interrogated her for what they deemed a suspicious act.
Also interviewed are members of the Curiel clan, scions of patriarch Daniel Curiel who was one of Egypt’s wealthiest businessmen. His son Henri was arguably one of the most important figures on the left until his untimely death at the age of 64 from an assassin’s bullet in 1978. Although his assailant was never identified, the film speculates that the Mossad was responsible.
In 1943 Curiel founded the Communist-led Egyptian Movement for National Liberation (HAMETU) that became the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (HADETU) four years later. Jailed repeatedly with other CP’ers, he was finally exiled in 1950 despite the HADETU’s role in launching the 1952 revolution led by the free officers and General Nasser.
His post-exile activities suggest a breach with the CP since Curiel focused almost exclusively on aiding third world insurrectionary movements, especially the FLN in Algeria. So committed to the Algerian cause, he donated his father’s mansion in Egypt to the Algeria government for use as a consulate.
His son Alain Gresh, who is interviewed throughout the film speaking in Arabic, is the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique.
“The Jews of Egypt” opens at the Quad in New York on March 28th. Highly recommended.
Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, “Xingu” is a biopic about the Vilas-Bôas brothers who were Brazil’s most passionate defenders of indigenous rights. Unlike the typical Hollywood hagiographical treatment, the brothers are treated as a flawed human beings working in an environment that would exploit their weaknesses, particularly being dependent on the government and the military’s financing and logistical support at the very time when the Amazon was being “colonized”.
It turns out that two of the brothers, who come from a privileged family and are seeking an adventure, pretend that they are simple “peons” looking for work when they line up at a government recruiting station in 1943 that is staffing up for a colonization project in the Amazon rainforest. Before they get on line, they exchange their regular clothing for a peasant’s garments and when asked to sign a form, they use their thumbprint pretending illiteracy. I chuckled to myself when watching this scene since it reminded me of the act so many Trotskyist college graduates put on when trying to get a job in a factory or mine in the late 70s as part of our own “colonization” efforts. Needless to say, the Vilas-Bôas brothers were far more effective than we ever were.
Xingu refers to both the river and the region of northern Brazil, where the colonizing expeditions were being sent. In 1943 this would be the first time that Indians saw white men and vice versa. Perhaps as a function of their education but more likely a reflection of their humanity, the brothers decide to approach a band of fearsome natives on the Xingu river, perhaps taking their lives in their hands. Instinctively they present gifts to the menacing looking dozen or so Indians in a gesture that is essential to hunting and gathering societies—the so-called potlatch.
Within a few months, the settlers and the natives are on the best of terms. But a few months later the time-dishonored patterns of genocide set in. A flu that starts in the white men’s camp gets transmitted to the Indian village, killing half of the population including the chief who welcomed them as brothers. From that point on the Vilas-Bôas brothers make the creation of a protected area for Indians their life work. Despite the rotten compromises they are forced to make with the military and the government, they never lose sight of this.
A Guardian obituary for Orlando Vilas-Bôas, the last of the surviving brothers who died in 2002, put it well:
Non-aggression was not the norm in those days: most who ventured into the forest regarded the Indians as savages to be shot like animals. Villas Boas himself said: “On our expedition, the peao (labourer) with the least number of crimes had eight murders under his belt. I lived for 40 years among the Indians and never saw one of them slap another in the face. But we were the ones who were going to civilise [them].”
The Villas Boas brothers realised that the Indians had no protection against the society that would advance along the tracks opened up by the expedition, and from then on Orlando and Claudio, in particular, devoted themselves to creating an area where the indigenous nations of the Xingu area would be safe. They were joined by anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro and public health doctor Noel Nutels, and the result was the Xingu National Park, an area of 26,000 square kms where 15 different previously warring tribes learned to live together. They belonged to the four main language groups of indigenous peoples in Brazil: Aruwak, Karib, Gê and Tupi. The park was the first of its kind in the world.
“Big Men” is a documentary about the oil industry’s impact on Africa that opens today at the IFC Center in New York. It is focused on a deal cut with a small Texas firm called Kosmos run by Jim Musselman and the government of Ghana to conduct offshore drilling operations. Since the film is relentlessly devoid of obvious editorializing, it allows Musselman and the Ghanians to define their goals without ever asking them any tough questions. Directed by Rachel Boynton (and executive produced by Brad Pitt), the strategy seems to be to allow the viewer to make their own decisions about the possible value of oil to the country.
About as far as it ever comes to editorializing are the scenes of despoliation and criminality in next-door Nigeria, a nation where oil is a curse rather than a blessing as it is in Venezuela. We meet criminal bands that blow up pipelines without regard to the environmental impact when they are not siphoning off the oil to sell on the black market.
The film is structured as a kind of mystery with the Texas and Ghana principals trying to put themselves in the best light without the benefit of outside experts telling us that so-and-so is about to cheat the people of this developing nation out of their precious resources.
Reviewers are generally sympathetic to the neutral posture Boyton takes. For example, the Village Voice critic writes:
There’s hope that Ghana might be different. Boynton interviews many officials in the new government, then led by now-deceased president John Atta Mills, who speak passionately about preserving Ghana’s wealth for Ghana. “You can live in relative comfort,” Mills promises a crowd in the run-up to the election. That means, of course, getting “greedy,” as Musselman would have it — “They’re just as crooked as they can be,” he says of Mills’s administration — but not getting as greedy as almost everyone else in the world has. Will Ghana succeed? This film, a great one, demands a follow-up.
I would have preferred a more engaged perspective that would have provided an answer to the question of whether Ghana will succeed but that goes with the territory of being an unrepentant Marxist.
If I had made this film, I would have asked some tough questions about Kosmos’s connections with the Blackstone Group that poured $500 million into the firm in 2008. In fact the failure to examine these ties is my main criticism of Boyton’s work. Peter Peterson, an investment banker who since retiring has campaigned to destroy what’s left of the American social welfare safety net, founded Blackstone. This leaves me feeling somewhat less than sanguine about Ghana benefiting from Kosmos’s presence.
The Blackstone Group was co-founded by Stephen A. Schwarzman, who remains the private capital firm’s CEO. If he refused to grant an interview to me, I would have camped outside his office Michael Moore style and then trailed him down the street camera in hand yelling out questions to him like this one:
Mr. Schwarzman, you made $213 million in 2012. When the Obama administration tried to get private capital firm owners like yourself to pay more than a paltry 15% tax, you compared that to Hitler invading Poland. Do you plan to fight for your right to make unlimited wealth as if you were a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto fighting for his life?
When you celebrated your 60th birthday, you rented the Park Avenue Armory for $3 million, including a gospel choir led by Patti LaBelle that serenaded you with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” If New York catches fire, do you plan to serenade it with a fiddle like Nero?
I imagine if I presented Brad Pitt with such a scenario, I would have had to use Kickstarter for funding instead.