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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival 2018

Though the New York Sephardic community is relatively small its film festival has been staged for the last 21 years presenting programs which promote the broad differentiated culture of  global Sephardic communities, emphasizing their history, tradition and the issues they face. The 2018 edition was held from March 5-15 at New York’s Center for Jewish History with a full schedule of cultural programs as well as feature and short films. The principal sponsor of the festival was the American Sephardic Federation with Sara Nodjoumi serving as the festival's programming director and David Serero as the producer,  a task he discharged perfectly.  Additional support was received from the Bweta Family Foundation, Maroccon agencies, the Consulate General of Mexico, Hotel 32/32 and the American Friends of Soroka Medical Center.

With many sold out events the audience reached about 2000  individuals this year with most coming from the Sephardic community encompassing all age and educational groups but also attracting  other religions and ethnicities. Compared to past editions, this year’s program featured new events each night.  As in most other film festivals, themes for the festival emerged when more than 100 productions were reviewed for the 2018 program for which 8 documentary features, 3 narrative features and 5 short films were selected. For the producer, David Serero  each festival night was a challenge though the festival “is a dream that we wish would never end.”  For a niche film festival serving a small audience, the New York Sephardic film fest provides a comprehensive program. There is a Los Angeles week long Sephardic film festival focusing on a small number of films only and one in Portland with two days of screenings. In that context it is of interest that there are more than 60 Jewish film festivals in the United States and that the first streaming services focusing on Jewish and Israeli films have already emerged.. 

The New York Sephardic community is relatively small compared to the 1.1 million Jews estimated to reside in New York City in 2012.  In Manhattan there are about 36,000  Sephardic Jews. Some arrived in 1654 from Brazil and other refugees came from the Ottoman Empire and after 1948 from the Arab world. Growth of the New York Sephardic community is now taking place because of the exodus of Sephardic immigrants from France who decided to settle in the United States rather than Israel. They are faced with anti-Semitism by Muslims from the same countries that forced them to leave North Africa for France. Many are expected to settle in Manhattan.

Each night of the festival centered on themes reflecting the diverse communities the American Sephardic Federation represents. 11 Feature and documentary films focused on communities from Iraq, Syria, France, Mexico, Egypt, Israel, and Ethiopia. They were complemented by question and answer sessions with the film makers, Syrian and Mexican After Parties, and the 2018 Pomegranate award ceremonies.  Na’Ma Kkeha received the Rising Star award for her production and professional television experience. Said Ben Said whose productions  have scored numerous outstanding awards and are screened at the most important film festivals received  the award for artistic courage. Itamar Borochova, jazz innovator and world-renowned trumpeter, won the pomegranate for musical conservation, creativity and coexistence. This award was also bestowed on the Innov Gnawa Grammy-nominated musical collective exploring the Moroccan Gnawa music roots and rituals tradition. It is playing an important part in the Arabic musical world in New York.  Consisting of seven members, six from the collective are the Chorus and play the qraqeb,  a large iron castanet like instrument and on one  plays with vocals the sintit, a guitar sized three stringed lute covered with camel skin.

Among the outstanding productions shown were numerous which had received awards and critical accolades. To review just some

Nora’s Will, Mariana Chenillo, Mexico, 2010

In this melodramatic feature film we can observe in a comedy of religious and secular manners reality clashes snd how family members and friends try to reconcile conflicting demands. Looking for Nora several days before Passover her husband Jose, a secular Jew who lives across the hallway and has been separated from her for many days, enters her apartment and finds a beautifully set large diner table and a refrigerator full of prepared Passover food with instructions how to prepare and serve them. Jose finds her passed away in her bed having committed suicide but before taking her life she set up a situation where all members of the family and friends will spend the last Passover together. Jose has to stay with her until she can get her burial. In the comedy of manners that follows in the following days religious functionaries claim care of the body and insist on carrying out rituals, a worldly  funeral home intervenes, and  flowers as well as a large casket are delivered by an undertaker. Jose argues with his son who has married into an apparently orthodox rich Jewish family and suspects that the son’s loyalties are determined by the father in law. Jose discovers going through Nora’s papers that she had an affair and suspects her of having an unhappy life with him. Nora’s rabbi refuses to give her a religious burial and tries to place her into the ground outside the Jewish section of the cemetery. Jose has to negotiate with the Rabbi’s superior  to solve  the problem.

Stars, Konrad Wolf,  East Germany / Bulgaria, 1959

Directed by a distinguished film maker from communist Germany, the DDR, at a time when there were few if any films made dealing with the holocaust and the discussion of the mass murder of Jews and others by the Third Reich remained taboo for most Germans. Wolf’s film about the evolving relation between a German soldier and a Sephardic Jew in a Bulgarian village was probably the first presenting a sympathetic view of a German soldier involved in the holocaust. The soldier who goes by the name of Walter and loves to draw is guarding with some others a group of Jewish prisoners who are on their way Auschwitz. They stay in the village for several days, locked up in a school.  One of them, Ruth has an encounter with Walter and there is a brief exchange between them but Walter seems to be ignorant about the eventual fate of Ruth and the other prisoners. His superior Kurt who has been to Auschwitz calls it a meat factory without talking about what happens there. He compensates his Auschwitz experience through alcohol and having fun. For Kurt, Ruth is just an attractive prisoner who should give pleasure to Walter. Walter arranges to meet Ruth for long walks outside the school accompanied by a guard. In these exchanges Walter’s diffuse doubts about what happens are resolved and he decides to help Ruth. He had been aware before of the resistance fighters in the village which he could identify but chose not to do so and arranges help for Ruth when the train leaves. Kurt misleads him about the departure time and Ruth is doomed.  Wolf shows Walter’s transformation. From his provision of medications for the imprisoned Jews and the resistance and his failed attempt to save Ruth, he turns to offer arms to the resistance.  The film was shown in East Germany but not in Bulgaria given its conflictual past with the deportation of Jews.  Since Stars won the 1959 Cannes Grand Jury award it was also shown in West Germany but only after the section showing Walter offering arms to the resistance was removed. It was considered too upsetting for most Germans, an act of high treason.

The Ancestral Sin, David Deri, Israel, 2017

This documentary feature by David Deri who comes from a Moroccan family that experienced to the forced settlement policies he depicts, was for me the most important film of the festival triggering great interest in the film whenever I discussed it. Though most knew of the discrimination of Sephardic Jews from Arab countries by the Ashkenazi power structure dominating Israel in its first two decades, few had ever seen the discrimination documented. Deri’s family was forced to settle in Yeruham, a development town in the Negev, as part of the policy to disperse Sephardic Jews from Arab countries in sparsely settled  former Arab areas which opened up in the war of independence and subsequent armed conflicts.  This policy was guided by clear demographic and military goals. Since most Israelis lived in metropolitan urban areas and a large number of newly established moshavim were left by the immigrants after they were moved there an official policy had to be designed.  Forced settlement in new development towns would help to overcome the refugees’ desire for living next to relatives in urban areas.  David Deri was able to reconstruct the story of Israel’s settlement of Sephardic Jews by accessing formerly secret files and summaries of meetings by policy makers, by interviewing academic planning and demographic experts, and by speaking to the victims of the official policies. As expected the systematic forced settlement was based on well-organized policies developed by Ashkenazi officials. Records of their meetings clearly showed a systematic bias as the designation of  Jews from Arab countries show, they were labeled as ignorant and illiterate, having no culture, being more Arab than Jewish,  and  in the words of Ben Gurion were subjected to justified discrimination. Further policies penalizing settlers of developments who left were instituted such as loss of the right to work and to be housed. They even could be asked to compensate the state of Israel for the expenses they incurred. When in the Arab struggles for independence Jewish groups were subject to massive antisemitism more than 200,000 Jews left for Israel. On arrival they could not choose were they wanted to live but leaving the ships they were brought directly to development towns which were often not ready to be inhabited. They were accommodated in public housing. As Deri shows from the protocols of the Jewish Agency meetings all proceedings were confidential.  When in following years Ashkenazi Jews from Poland arrived in Israel, they could live wherever they wanted and certainly did not select the Negev but urban areas. They were housed in apartments they could acquire, an option not available for those living in public housing. When Deri showed his documentary to the victims of the forced settlement policy, now grandparents, the reaction was mixed. Some viewers articulated anger and frustration, others noted that after all Israel was successful implementing these policies if one looks at her current achievement as a major regional power.

The Band’s Visit,  Eran Kolirin, Israel 2007

In this charming feature eight Egyptian musicians get lost in a small forlorn Negev desert town to open an Arab Cultural Center with a concert. They had missed their destination and at night meet few people advising them that this town in the middle of the Israeli desert has no culture be it Israeli or Arab, no hotel and only bus transportation in the morning. The band in its impressive blue uniforms is forced to stay and is accommodated by a family and Dina who runs a café. The musicians have no problems adjusting to their situation. Nowhere in the limited communicative encounter is there an indication of antagonism and hostility between the Israelis and Egyptians. To the contrary the musicians and townspeople are rather open about revealing shortcomings and loss of hope, bringing an element of friendly darkness to the film. They seem as resigned as the town they were stranded in. In the morning hours two teenagers sit speechless in front of the café. One musician is unable to complete a melody he is working on, yet teaches in a disco a resigned teenager how to handle a girl. Next to a telephone a boy is waiting for hours for a call from his girlfriend.  Dina mutters that she is a failure when the communication with Tewfiq, the band leader, who stays in her house, does not go anywhere. Tewgfiq rarely speaks but confides in Dina that both his young son and his wife have died and that he is alone. Both share sympathetic sadness. In the morning the musicians leave for their destination and Dina opens her café.

Claus Mueller