Jews of Egypt: Brave Documentary on Egypt’s Forgotten Jewish Community
Following a drawn-out battle for censorship approval, Jews of Egypt has finally hit cinemas across Cairo. Gaining recognition from numerous international film festivals, this enthralling portrayal of the seemingly forgotten Egyptian Jewish community that once was, builds on nostalgia and undeniable human anguish.
Director, Amir Ramsis, who personally funded the project alongside producer and co-director Haitham Al-Khamissi, begins the story by exploring the streets of Cairo today. Conducting a series of short on-street interviews, Ramsis questions the public on their knowledge of the large Jewish community that once played a big part in the Egyptian society. His questions receive a number of diverse answers, from one person stating that “the Jews are enemies of Islam in everything” to another asserting that “there is a difference between being a Jew and a Zionist”.
The story then moves onto a series of personal interviews with several Egyptian-born Jews, who now reside in Paris, France and one who has chosen to stay. The group reminisces fondly and it is very clear that most still hold Egypt very dear to their hearts. We also learn about the Jewish influence on Egyptian cinema – told in depth by Mr. Abou-Ghar, the author of Jews of Egypt: From Prosperity to Diaspora – highlighting the life of singer and actress, Leila Mourad and her brother and fellow performer, Mounir Mourad, as well early Egyptian cinema pioneer, Togo Mizrahi. Influential businessmen such as the founder of Misr International Bank, Joseph Cicuriel, and political activists, Youssef Darwish and Henri Curiel, also further emphasise the impact that the Jewish community had pre-1950s.
Ramsis is very clever and cautious in how he approaches this rather sensitive subject and mainly focuses on the understanding of the difference between Jews, Israel and Zionists – a blurred perception that the film shows is rife today. Succeeding on many levels, the documentary is well-paced and there is a certain rawness to it – what you see is what you get. In an attempt to take the audience deeper into the story, the director weaves in a compilation of both archived and modern footage of the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and the interviews with exiled Egyptian Jews tie in an emotional connection with the audience.
Unfortunately, the director does get a little lost in the second part of the film, when he turns the focus on the political ramifications that eventually led to an exodus of Egyptian Jews. Although the film touches on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers Movement, the section feels rushed and only scratches the surface.
Nevertheless, Jews of Egypt still succeeds. Riveting and stirring, Amir Ramsis’s depiction of Egypt’s forgotten Jews makes this documentary one of the most important and daring films to come out of Egypt in recent years.