By ReadTheSpirit Editor
As a journalist covering religion and diversity, I’ve reported for many years on the rise of Holocaust awareness in popular media. The event that set off this wave was the debut of the 1978 TV melodrama The Holocaust with Meryl Streep. The subsequent explosion of public interest in capturing Holocaust memories on video eventually was championed by Steven Spielberg. Now there are more hours of Holocaust video, counting Spielberg’s vast library of Shoah Foundation videos, than a single person could watch in a lifetime.
WHY ANOTHER HOLOCAUST VIDEO?
At ReadTheSpirit, we’re always looking for that exceptional, unusual Holocaust resource that you’d likely miss without our help. We’re looking for accuracy. We’re looking for top-quality production. And we’re looking for compelling films and books that will hold an audience. All of those things are true of Ismael Ferroukhi’s gripping drama, Free Men, now available on DVD from Amazon thanks to the folks at Film Movement.
MUSLIMS HELPING JEWS IN THE HOLOCAUST???
Since the release of Free Men last year, the film’s storyline has been controversial. For the most part, Muslim and Arab leaders across Africa and the Middle East during World War II were not helpful to Jews trying to avoid the Holocaust. Visit Yad Vashem in Israel and this point is driven home in the historical galleries about the Shoah. However, there were indeed some notable cases of Muslims risking their lives to save Jews—and one of the most poignant stories happened in the heart of Paris at the historic central mosque involving a world-class musician, Salim Halali.
Salim Halali, a one-man beacon of diversity
If you’ve never heard of Salim Halali, you’re certainly not alone! Try to find him on Wikipedia or in any standard Holocaust history book and you’ll come away scratching your head. I know, because I tried after watching this impressive drama—and was on the verge of concluding that Halali was some kind of fictional figure. Then, I found quite a number of French-language websites and magazines that have profiled the famous musician. After using Google-Translate on these compiled clippings and comparing the facts—this true story emerges:
In 1920, Salim Halali was born into a Jewish family, originally from Souk Ahras, Algeria. In the 1930s, he was working mainly in France as a successful Arabic-language flamenco singer in Parisian nightclubs. He also toured Europe and North Africa, until the German occupation. As a Jew, he was at risk in Nazi sweeps of Paris, but the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, decided to save his life. The rector managed the mosque, but he also was a musician and scholar and loved Halali’s genre of Arab-Andalusian music. Under the rector’s direction, Halali was given forged papers and protected through an elaborate charade that included the creation of a headstone etched with the name of his father that was placed in the Muslim cemetery in Paris.
After the war, Halali founded the Oriental Folies Ismailia, a club that was the toast of Paris in the late 1940s. Later, he moved to Morocco and opened a club in Casablanca that drew rich and famous guests in the 1950s. Halali toured the world performing his distinctive genre for his fans. He retired in the 1990s and died in 2005.
Both the Halali character in the movie and the rector of the mosque look remarkably like the original historical figures. Vintage photos on some French-language websites confirm the visual accuracy of both men. What’s more? As it turns out—you still can order a CD collection of Halali’s melodies via Amazon and, among the offerings, I recommend the collection called: Jewish-Arab Song Treasures.
Verdict on accuracy in Free Men
First and foremost, the basic story about Halali, the rector of the Paris mosque and the elaborate deception is accurate. Beyond that, the film’s handsome young hero, shown on the cover of the DVD, is a fictional composite of Muslims who must have interacted with Halali and the rector during the Nazi crackdowns in Paris. That’s how filmmaker Ismael Ferroukhi describes the creation of his fictional “main character” and it makes sense—this is a suspenseful drama and this young French “everyman” can connect the dots between historical events. In addition, the filmmakers say that they have historical documentation about two little Jewish girls who the Muslim characters also try to save. Overall? This movie is far closer to the accurate history than a lot of movies supposedly “based on a true story,” these days. This verdict matches the conclusions of a lengthy story analyzing the movie in the Jewish Daily Forward by Benjamin Ivry.
Care to read more about this true story? It’s a chapter in the book Interfaith Heroes 2, which is available to read online.
Support culturally diverse cinema!
In the cut-throat competition to provide home access to feature films, major media companies are slashing their way to the cheapest forms of distribution. This also means that countless films with valuable stories are being lost to American viewers. Fewer and fewer feature-length DVDs are being released and sold, especially foreign-language films. We want to encourage distributors like Film Movement to keep doing what they do so well. Earlier this year, we recommended the superb Film Movement feature, Foreign Letters, about an Israeli girl and her Asian friend. You also may want to learn about Film Movement’s monthly DVD series for home viewing. Or, if you are a librarian or are interested in a group showing of Film Movement movies in your part of the country, click here to learn about Film Movements various options for “Non-theatrical Screenings.”
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.