For Israeli audiences, this scenario may sound horrifyingly familiar. A young man is kidnapped and brutally tortured. He meets his bitter end when his perpetrators drag him to a forest, douse him with gasoline and set him on fire.
Except this didn’t happen last week, but eight years ago – and in a place far away. The victim was Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Parisian Jew whose murder has come to symbolize the rise of anti-Semitism in modern-day France.
“24 Days: The True Story of the Ilan Halimi Affair” is a new movie based on a memoir written by the victim’s mother, scheduled to have its Israeli premiere this week at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Directed and produced by Alexandre Arcady, this 110-minute feature chronicles the agonizing 24 days during which a young Jewish cell-phone salesman was held captive by a group of African and North African immigrants later known as the “Gang of Barbarians,” while his desperate family was subjected to blackmail.
No need for a spoiler alert, as the awful ending is revealed right at the start for the benefit of those viewers who might not be familiar with the true events. That doesn’t make the drama any less suspenseful; nor does it wipe out any temptation to hope against hope, as events unfold, that Halimi and his family will eventually prevail over their tormentors.
The filmmakers were kind enough to spare viewers graphic scenes of the torture he endured, but it doesn’t require that well-developed an imagination to figure things out. Indeed, Halimi’s muffled cries at key moments in the film suggest a level of suffering too unbearable to contemplate.
“24 Days” opens with Halimi (played by the very dashing Syrus Shahidi) joining his divorced mother and sister for a traditional Friday night meal to usher in the Sabbath. A phone call from an attractive woman he met earlier that day lures him to a rendezvous on the other side of town. Little does he know that this attractive woman, for whom he ditches his longtime girlfriend on this fateful night, is being used as bait to ensnare him. As she fumbles through her bag while he escorts her back to her apartment, a gang of thugs pounces on him and drags him away.
The young Jewish captive spends the next three-and-a-half weeks tied up on the floor of a decrepit apartment on the outskirts of Paris, his face and eyes sealed with duct tape. When cleaning his waste becomes too much of a chore for his captors, they simply stop feeding him.
Fortunately, the goings-on in that tiny room where Halimi is held hostage feature only marginally in the film. The main drama plays out on the other side of town, where Halimi’s parents and sisters struggle to maintain their sanity amid this nightmarish ordeal.
Perceived by police as the more cooperative parent, his father, Didier (Pascal Elbé), follows instructions by investigators and psychologists to act tough and hold his ground when he communicates by phone with his son’s abductors. But his mother, Ruth (Zabou Breitman), grows ever more frustrated with the police for making light of the demands of her son’s captors, and for refusing to recognize the anti-Semitic nature of the crime.
Over the course of the 24 days their son is in captivity, the Halimis are taunted, cursed and threatened during the hundreds of phone calls they receive from the kidnappers demanding ransom.
When the kidnappers eventually figure out that the police are on their trail, and sensing they have nothing left to lose, they dump Halimi’s mutilated body in the forest (he was still technically alive and died en route to the hospital, after being discovered by passersby on the road).
The Halimi murder, which sent shock waves through France, predated the fatal shootings of Jews outside a school in Toulouse by six years. But what makes “24 Days” especially powerful today is not so much its focus on the dangerous wave of anti-Semitism sweeping through a country that is home to Europe’s largest Jewish community.
Rather, it is its ability to show how humans can descend into barbarity when driven by hate and prejudice. And that is sure to strike a chord in Israel these days.
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