Algerian-born Interpreter of the Jews

Alexandre Arcady is a French filmmaker whose works focus on Jews. He is being featured this week at the Sixth Jewish Film Festival in Jerusalem

Goel Pinto
Goel Pinto
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Goel Pinto
Goel Pinto

French film director Alexandre Arcady is not surprised that most Israelis do not know him or his works, which are about Judaism and Israel. "Israelis don't like when people try to teach them," he says.

Still, he stands out: How many directors around the world place Judaism at the heart of their work and give their heroes Jewish last names such as Zagury and Biton? How many European directors put traditional Passover songs such as Mah nishtanah (why is this night different from all other nights) or henna ceremonies and Jewish weddings at the center of their creations?

The Sixth Jewish Film Festival, being held this week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, is making this Algerian-born film director and his works its focus, with four works to be screened, from "The Jewish Connection," his most successful film, from 1982, to his wonderful comedy "Mariage Mixte," which he directed this year.

Grandfathers join forces

No Israeli distributor was found for "Mariage Mixte." That's a shame, but not surprising - hardly any of Arcady's 13 films have been distributed to Israeli theaters. The film focuses on Max Zagury (Gerard Darmon), a Jew of Algerian decent who runs his economic empire in ways that are not always permissible. His daughter, Lisa, works on archeological excavations in Morocco, and there she meets Jean-Christophe, a Catholic from a bourgeois French family. The two announce their plans to get married, and Zagury does his utmost - even joining forces with the groom's anti-Semitic grandfather - to prevent it.

Max Zagury is a variation of Raymond Biton, the lead character in "The Jewish Connection" (Gerard Darmon also was featured in that film). However, unlike Biton, Arcady is more forgiving to the film characters, and the film ends with total acceptance on the part of everyone.

"`The Jewish Connection' was made in a different era and in a different reality," says Arcady. "It talked about the fact that discrimination reaches everywhere. And even a French criminal is treated better than a Jewish criminal. Today the Jewish community in France is a tiny minority among other minority groups: 600,000 Jews amid 60 million people."

Among Jews, has there been a change in the matter of mixed marriages?

Arcady: "At the time when `The Jewish Connection' was made, it would not have occurred to me to depict a relationship between a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man, whereas today there is a good chance that a Jewish woman will marry a non-Jewish man. Things have changed. Today we must accept the other, and be tolerant and realistic about the Jews' situation in the world. I have a daughter, who is 19, and I wonder what will happen in her life. Today, I understand that it's impossible to do anything against love." However, he laughs and adds, "The truth is that I'm not sure that would be my attitude if it were my son who was involved and who wanted to marry a non-Jewish woman."

Bad vibes

Were it not for the Magen David pendant around Arcady's neck, one might mistakenly think he is a pure gentile. He has a French bourgeois look: long golden hair, blue eyes and a wide build. "Perhaps because I don't seem Jewish I created a film about Judaism, so that they'd know who I am," he says.

According to him, "I don't create Jewish works of film, but film influenced by Judaism. I assume that if I were of Italian Catholic descent, I would make films like Francis Ford Coppola does, where family and religion play an important role. Italian-American directors are never viewed as Italians, and even Woody Allen's films are not viewed as Jewish films. Naturally, when I created films I spoke about what was close to me, about what I was familiar with: about family, about tradition and also about Israel. I talk about Judaism in a simple manner, without apologetics. My role is not to protect Judaism."

Indeed, it's impossible to suspect Arcady's films of trying to protect Judaism. In many of them, the hero is not an honest person. One of the plot lines in "Mariage Mixte" describes how Zagury manages to obtain ownership of a chain of casinos using inappropriate methods. In "The Jewish Connection" the main Jewish character tries to obtain ownership of a prestigious casino using illegal methods. "Not all Jews in my films are criminals," says Arcady with a smile. "This characterization is for the sake of film. It helps the plot when there is an extravagant character."

Arcady became acquainted with Israel when he spent two years on a kibbutz and was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. Since the Six-Day War, he has held Israeli citizenship and an Israeli passport. "He was right," he says of the French ambassador's comments in a radio interview last week, according to which Israelis have "an anti-French neurosis."

"In my opinion, the reason for it is the French Jew who visits Israel," says Arcady. "French Jewry is the Jewish community that is most supportive of tourism to Israel. Whoever comes here tells his relatives and friends how hard it is in France and how bad it is there, and the Israelis internalize this.

"However, the French also have negative vibes toward Israel. As a matter of course, the French media mostly covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a negative light, and the Israeli films shown in France are anti-Israeli films. Israeli directors don't try to produce propaganda films but to tell stories, and many of them relate to the harsh sides of Israel. The truth? French Jews don't like to watch Israeli films."

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