Monday, June 23, 2014

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Songs from Dislocated Hearts

A scene from Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah (Tinghir-Jérusalem: Les échos du Mellah, 2013) is the first film by Moroccan-French filmmaker Kamal Hachkar, and seemingly a product of a journey he's been on for much of his adult life. In Tinghir-Jerusalem, we join Hachkar as he travels from the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, to Israel, and back again. Born in Tinghir, Morocco, of Muslim Berber descent, Hachkar emigrated to France with his parents at the age of 6 months. Growing up, mainly in France, he was inculcated with strong ties to his birth place, but when he sought to flesh out those stories himself, one recurring and unasked question haunted him: What, after millennia of living side-by-side, happened to the Jews of Tinghir? This is the question that drives him Рand the movie Рforward.

The film has been honoured at numerous film festivals, including winning Best Film at Morocco's Rabat International Film Festival for Human Rights and Best Documentary at Israel's Jewish Eye Festival, both in 2012. (This diversity of acclaim is the first and strongest indication of the sincerity of the young filmmaker's voice.) Armed with a cameraman, a book of published photos, and a seemingly uncharted wealth of natural charm, Hachkar knocks on doors and in minutes finds the kindred exiled hearts of his subjects. (One unplanned encounter with a Jewish Berber woman specifically will live long in your memory after viewing. Her pleasure, and her anguish, in recollecting her Muslim neigbours – from Casablanca in her case – is palpable and affecting.) Like the best film documentaries, Tinghir-Jerusalem paints a powerful portrait of a complicated historical and political moment, with humility and without didactism. Hachkar is as much a subject of his film as the numerous individuals he gathers together: a searching voice more interested in bringing people together than in resolving any big questions of history.

Filmmaker Kamal Hachkar in Tinghir-Jerusalem
The film opens in Tinghir, where Hachkar's grandfather gives the filmmaker a tour of the place he was born, but never lived. Here was the shop your father worked in. Here was where our Berber Jewish neighbours worked and prayed. Hachkar's interest in this absent Jewish population is unrepentantly personal. It is a part of his family's story, of his own story, that wishes to fill – it is also, importantly, influenced by his experience of the ongoing tensions between Muslims and Jews in France. He speaks with shop-owners and teenagers, and asks each of them the same question. One day, practically overnight, the Jews packed up and left. They sold their stores, said their goodbyes, and have not been seen since. Among the older population, there is a palpable longing for that earlier era, that time long ago when Jewish and Muslim Berbers lived their lives, side by side, took up arms against common enemies, and prayed morning prayers on opposite sides of the same walls. The young population has less nostalgia to harness, but are no less generous. And so the question burns hotter and hotter: why then would the Jews have left? Hachkar takes his quest to Israel, to seek out the exiles themselves.

Time and again, from both sides of the story: 'We cried, they cried.' 'We left with the clothes on our back practically in the middle of the night, but we did so voluntarily.' 'We left our homeland with makeshift, provisional passports: good for leaving, but not returning.' The recollections leave us with more questions than answers, but the genuineness of the witnesses cannot be called into question. The two, seemingly incompatible, ideas – "we/they left because we/they wanted to" and "we/they left because we/they had to" – run through the entire film. Swept up by competing forces of history, the Jews left – carrying little with them but stories and songs. Many ended up in Israel, where they faced prejudice from the largely European culture and even, it is implied, lived on the margins of the other Mizrahi/Sephardi Jewish communities. Five decades later, that first generation – still feeling more Moroccan than Israeli, more Berber than Moroccan – often still live side by side with their Moroccan Jewish cousins. With the slightest prompting by Hachkar, they pull out their drums and pound out rhythms and songs that have never really left them.

The filmmaker's smiles and tears runs through the film. He's learned Hebrew to better understand his Jewish subjects, but the Berber Jews regularly, and seamlessly, slip into Arabic and Berber. The almost dreamlike joy that his presence brings to the Berber Israelis – the faces in the photos that they all recognize, the long-forgotten names of the shopkeepers, artisans, and friends they left, the real kinship they feel to this visiting French-Muslim stranger in their homes – makes up the real heart of the film.

The film looks and sounds impeccable. The subtitles are clear and well-translated – however viewers should still keep their ears open for the constant and sometimes seamless code-switching of the film's subjects, especially the Jewish Berbers who have long settled in Israel. Often in a single sentence, they will tell their stories in Hebrew, French, Arabic and Berber. At one point while in Israel, one explicitly tells Hachkar that (with apologies) he will have to tell a story in Hebrew, only to shift to Berber by the end. Even without the inherently compelling stories the film uncovers, these demonstrations of the intimate linkage of memory and language makes the film an incredible document. Over the course of 90 minutes, it becomes powerfully clear that perhaps there are some stories – even ones we tell only ourselves – that can only live in one, specific, language. And that if it wasn’t for the rare opportunities provided by the filmmaker himself, these memories wouldn't emerge.

The overlap between their responses – memories of food, shopkeepers, the women doing their laundry by the river – grow richer and richer with repetition and shifting perspectives. In dress, attitude, and even in hand gestures, even across decades and thousands of miles, the kinship between the Jewish and Muslim Berbers is evident. The force of history and politics that invaded their homes and town squares has left holes in their hearts they have yet to fill. Even the elderly residents of Tinghir, who may have never left the small mountain valley in their lifetimes, are unapologetically wistful for that earlier era when they and their Jewish cousins ate, worked, and fought side by side.

It's challenging to tell a story so laden with history through decidedly individual eyes without dissembling or obscuring. To its continuing credit, the film allows many provocative moments of subtle ambiguity and contradiction – e.g. the current young people of Tinghir's (apparently mistaken) belief that Jews and Muslims would be educated in common, the differing perception of the French-Jewish colonial efforts to de-Berberize the local Jewish population, the question of just how safe it may have been for the Jews of Tinghir to remain. Hachkar has an insatiable curiosity that is driven by love and longing, but none of this undercuts a genuine search for answers. And the big question – why did the Jews of Tinghir leave? – is never definitively answered. He asks it right to the film's final minutes – of his Tinghiri grandfather, of his parents, of Israeli historians, of Jewish Berbers in Israel and Muslims Berbers on the streets of Morocco. And the answers – intermittently powerful, evasive, and emotive – leave him and us unsatisfied. Everyone seems to have their own answer to the question: they left voluntarily to gather in Israel, beckoned by a religious tradition and a messianic urging; tensions with their Muslim neighbours increased due to Israel's 1948 War of Independence and a growing sense of discomfort and danger began to pervade once peaceful communities; the emigration was the product of a concentrated effort of a Zionist campaign that successfully painted a picture of a better life in Israel. There are many parts of the story that every one of the subjects in their own way pass over in silence, but the film, within this shifting landscape of history, politics, nostalgia and community myth-making, provides the viewers the space for those silences to be felt.

It's rare that the project of such a big-hearted and clearly idealistic filmmaker is both affecting and genuinely complex. With Tinghir-Jerusalem, Kamal Hachkar offers a unique view of under-represented Israeli and Moroccan communities, of marginal Jews and marginal Muslims, and his documentary approaches both sides of the story with sensitivity, knowledge, and an open heart. It is a powerful, beautiful, and painful film that definitely should be seen.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. In a similar vein, I saw JEWS OF EGYPT at the Montreal Film Festival last year. While worthwhile, I didn't enjoy it as much as you seemed to have appreciated this film.

  2. i enjoyed the movie, myself a berber jew of southern Morocco, had the pleasure of bringing Kamal to Jamaica to show his movie, then i went to Tinghirt to see for myself this town and relive that nostalgia of our jewish past. I congratulate you for your perfect comments on this subject.