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
--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.
Elsa Zylberstein (left) as
Mathilde & Fanny Valette (right) as Laura.
All photos courtesy of Kino International.
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
Mathilde with La Mere: Sonia Tahar plays
their Tunisian-born mother.
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.
Director Karin Albou
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
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.