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Delicate Glimpse into a World in Transition

Special for The Digital Filmmaker
by Jan Lisa Huttner

Recent revelations about Virginia Senator George Allen’s Tunisian heritage have drawn American attention to the Sephardim of North Africa, but the French got there first, awarding a Cannes Film Festival prize to the delicate film La Petite Jerusalem in May 2005. Released in selected American art houses in early 2006, La Petite Jerusalem is now available to all on DVD.

While most educated Americans know that approximately 700,000 Palestinians fled from the newly-declared state of Israel in 1948, few know that Jews in most Islamic countries also lost their homes. (I have no wish here to defend either set of circumstances both of which are tremendously complex and controversial. My basic position is simply this: when a huge population of men, women, and children leave their homes and migrate, some do so by choice, but most do so under duress because they believe they have no choice.) Jews from the Anglophone countries (Egypt, India/Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, etc.) typically went either to Israel or to another English-speaking country (Australia, Canada, South Africa, USA, etc), while most of the Jews from the Francophone countries (Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, etc.) went either to Israel or to France. So many Sephardic Jews now live in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelle that one of its neighborhoods is known as “little Jerusalem.”

"…my way of writing and shooting a script is to give the audience space and the freedom to interpret image…"
--Director Karin Albou
Kino International released
on DVD in August.

The family depicted in La Petite Jerusalem lives comfortably but on the edge. Mathilde, her husband Ariel, and their four children share an apartment with Mathilde’s mother and her sister Laura.


Like most Tunisian Jews, Mathilde is highly observant. She keeps kosher, covers her head whenever she leaves the house, regularly attends the mikva (ritual bath), and makes a concerted effort to raise her children in the embrace of Orthodox traditions. Laura, however, is a college student, responsible only for herself; she thinks of herself as more “French” than “Jewish,” and thereby allows herself to mentally entertain scandalous intellectual and emotional options.

The two sisters share a close relationship with each other, and both have warm feelings for their mother (she’s never give a name in the film, and always referred to as “La Mere”), but the enforced intimacy of their tight living situation is the source of escalating friction. Laura wants to move into her own apartment, but she has no money and Ariel claims he has little to spare.

The film is entirely present tense. Although Mathilde asks La Mere for details about her life in Tunisia, La Mere is like Mrs. Allen: she’s put it behind her and has no wish to look back. We never learn the circumstances of her emigration, how long she’s been in France, or even where her children were born. (Laura was probably born in France and is therefore a French citizen, but Mathilde, already the mother of four, is significantly older and may well have emigrated with her mother.) Nevertheless, La Mere still harbors old world superstitions, and invokes spells and talismans to “cure” Laura of her dangerous preoccupations.

This is writer/director Karin Albou’s first film, and she’s been showered with critical praise. In addition to winning the Cannes Film Festival “SACD Screenwriting Award” and the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics “Best First Film” award, she was also nominated for a Cesar for “Best First Work” as well as a “Golden Iris” from the Brussels European Film Festival. (Fanny Valette also received a Cesar nomination for “Most Promising Young Actress” for her portrayal of Laura.)

Albou’s achievement is immense. La Mere is woman with no name and no place of her own (a sure sign of metaphorical intentions on the part of her creator). In the course of examining how each daughter incorporates her mother’s complex trajectory into her own life, Albou depicts a community under siege--from within and without--with delicacy and nuance, empathy and deep respect.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (October 1, 2006)

Jan Lisa Huttner is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples. In addition to freelance work for a variety of print and online publications, Jan writes regular columns for the JUF News, Chicago's Jewish community monthly, and Chicago Woman, a bi-monthly published by The Woman's Newspapers. She is an active member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.


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