If movies can truly make a difference, then the timing of the soulful French wartime drama “Free Men” couldn’t be better.
Based on actual events, the engrossing second film by the Moroccan-born director Ismael Ferroukhi reveals the largely forgotten efforts of the director of the Mosque of Paris, Kaddour Ben Gabrit, to assist the Resistance and save Jews during the Nazi occupation.
With contemporary Muslim-Jewish tensions in France and elsewhere an ongoing cause of concern, “Free Men” provides a deeply felt reminder that both peoples are capable of performing bravely and righteously when faced with mindless racism.
“It’s true that I wanted the film to have an echo today, and to echo in the Arab and Jewish relationship that most of the time we believe is nonexistent,” Ferroukhi said in a phone interview a few days before the March 19 murders outside a Jewish school in Toulouse.
“Free Men” opens Friday, April 13 at the SIFF Cinema. It made its Seattle debut at the AJC Seattle Jewish Film Festival
The film’s main character is a young, street-smart Algerian who sells black-market goods in wartime Paris. Arrested by the police, Younes (Tahar Rahim) is given a choice: Go to jail, or turn informer and report on the goings-on at the mosque.
“Free Men” is a classic story of political awakening in which a callow protagonist encounters a cause and discovers a purpose larger than himself. With the wise, low-key guidance of Ben Gabrit (played with equal gravitas and softness by Michael Lonsdale), Younes finds himself helping Jews — and changing from selfish to selfless before our eyes.
Along the way, he becomes friends with a gifted Algerian singer with his own secrets, Salim Halali, an actual historical figure played by the Israeli actor Mahmoud Shalaby and dubbed in the musical sequences by the Moroccan vocalist Pinhas Cohen. If this provides a clue to what Salim is hiding, so be it.
“The Northern African population believes, most of the time, that relations between Arabs and Jews never existed,” Ferroukhi explains. “In our research, we discovered exactly the opposite — there were relations. But that memory has faded, and was deleted from collective memory. And that is due to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. There was literature as well as music that dates to Andalusia, where the Arabic, Jewish and Christian cultures created culture together.”
Younes is also introduced to the nascent Algerian independence movement. “Free Men” subtly but unmistakably acknowledges the betrayal of the Algerians along with the thousands of other men from France’s North African colonies who fought in the war and were denied the recognition, rights and respect they deserved.
But the soft-spoken Ferroukhi, speaking through an interpreter, downplays the suggestion that “Free Men” is intended to incite younger moviegoers to be politically engaged.
“The movie is not about the need for action, but history reminds the new generation of the need to act,” Ferroukhi maintains. “We can take a lesson that people from different [backgrounds], from different regions, unite for a common goal against a common enemy. I am not here to give any lessons to anyone. I learn from history and other people will learn—I don’t teach.”
Indeed, when Ferroukhi told a Jewish friend who worked on his first film, “Le Grand Voyage,” that Kaddour Ben Gabrit was the focus of his new project, the man exclaimed, “No way — that’s the man who saved my grandma.”
“It’s stronger than history,” Ferroukhi says quietly. “It’s intimacy.”