New French film tackles grisly anti-Semitic murder
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In 2006, the kidnapping and gruesome murder of a young French Jew, Ilan Halimi, shocked France and made front-page news around the world. A new film about the case -- and its mishandling by Paris police -- hits French screens Wednesday.
It was one of the ugliest crimes in recent French memory.
In 2006, a 23-year-old Parisian Jew named Ilan Halimi was lured to a late-night rendez-vous by a young woman, then kidnapped, held for ransom, and tortured in a basement for three weeks by a gang known as the “Barbarians”. Finally, when his captors realised no money was coming their way, they doused him in acid and dumped him bound and naked by the side of a highway. Halimi was found alive, but died before reaching the hospital.
The grisly murder shocked France -- which is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population -- and made front-page headlines abroad.
Now, somewhat inevitably, the story is coming to the big screen: Alexandre Arcady’s “24 Jours: La vérité sur l’affaire Ilan Halimi” (which translates as “24 Days: The Truth about the Ilan Halimi Case”) will be released in France on April 30.
Based on a book by Halimi’s mother Ruth and French writer Emilie Frèche, the film focuses on the ordeal endured by the victim’s family as they were guided by police through an erratic, seemingly endless series of phone negotiations with their son’s abductors. With its high-profile French cast – Zabou Breitman and Pascal Elbé play Ilan’s parents, Jacques Gamblin is the chief investigator, and Sylvie Testud an advising psychologist – and slick visuals, “24 Jours” is a largely by-the-books affair.
A dramatisation of a recent event as horrifying and grave in its implications as this one can feel exploitative or didactic (one often wonders if a documentary wouldn’t have been more suitable) -- and Arcady, who has a lengthy but undistinguished roster of films to his name, is not resourceful enough to avoid the hazards.
But if “24 Jours” accomplishes little artistically, it provides a jolting glimpse at a current-day France haunted by some very persistent demons.
Indeed, the Ilan Halimi case seemed to embody a gamut of French ills, both historical (France’s deportation of Jews during World War II and its troubled colonial history in North and sub-Saharan Africa) and present (issues relating to immigration and economic inequalities).
Failing to spot the warning signs
“24 Jours” centers around a family’s pain, but it is also about a botched police investigation. As Arcady shows us, the well-intentioned officers, inspectors, and specialists working on the case were stubbornly reluctant to acknowledge the elephant in the room: that Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured because he was Jewish.
Halimi (played here by Syrus Shahidi as an affectionate son and sweet-natured ladies’ man) worked at one of several small, Jewish-owned mobile phone shops in Paris’s 11th district. Early in the film, we see him sneak out for a date with a French-Iranian beauty, who just that day had come into the store and flirted with him. After meeting her at a café and driving her to what she claims is her home, Halimi is attacked and taken to a building in the nearby suburb of Bagneux. In a mercifully swift sequence, we see the young man being tied up and beaten, his face entirely covered with tape except for a small hole to allow for a straw.
Police eventually learned that the Barbarians – depicted in the film as a group of nearly indistinguishable thugs answering to French-Ivorian ringleader Youssouf Fofana (played by Tony Harrisson) – had unsuccessfully targeted several other French Jews before Halimi.
But those in charge of the investigation clung to their belief that the victim’s religion had nothing to do with his abduction, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. In the movie’s most chilling scene, Ruth Halimi listens as a phone store employee who worked just across the street from her son tells police he was similarly approached by an attractive female customer, but refused her invitation to meet later that night. The reason: it was Friday and he had to stay home with his family (for the Jewish Sabbath).
Later, Halimi’s captors tell his working-class parents to get the ransom money “from your synagogue”. By the time a Paris rabbi shows up with an email sent to him by the Barbarians that reads, “We have a Jew”, Ruth Halimi can no longer contain the conviction she has been choking back from the beginning: her son is in greater physical danger than the authorities think, because while his kidnapping was motivated by money (and the Barbarians’ assumption that all Jews either had it or could access it through connections), the way his abductors are treating him reflects a deeper resentment.
Fear of ‘adding fuel to the fire’
The fact that the police considered Halimi an ordinary victim, rather than the victim of a hate crime, is not entirely surprising, given France’s wariness of emphasising differences between its citizens. In this strictly secular country, where visible religious symbols like the Muslim headscarf or Jewish kippah are banned in schools, hospitals and other public buildings, French identity is supposed to supersede attachment to any ethnic or religious community. Moreover, France’s history of deporting French Jews during World War II, and the years of guilt and silence that followed, have made anti-Semitism a touchy topic here.
In press notes for “24 Jours”, however, Arcady (who is Jewish himself) offers more precise hypotheses as to why French authorities didn’t follow Ruth Halimi’s hunch. “The Ilan Halimi case came six months after the case of the ‘RER girl’ [on which André Téchiné’s film “The Girl on the Train” is loosely based]. A young woman claimed she had been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack on the train, and the whole political class – including the president – expressed indignation, until the police discovered it was a fabrication. The police working on the Halimi case was scared of falling into the same trap,” he said.
A second reason Arcady says French police may have taken so long to consider anti-Semitism as a motive in the Halimi abduction was their fear of stoking already simmering ethnic tensions. “This was shortly after the riots in the suburbs [a three-month period in 2005, during which residents of under-privileged, minority-heavy enclaves burned cars and clashed with police],” the filmmaker explained in press interviews. “That was a terrible experience for our society, and since the Barbarians may have been from those neighbourhoods [the gang included people of African, Caribbean, Arab, and Persian descent], no one wanted to risk a faux-pas or add fuel to the fire.”
The film also portrays one spectacular instance of police incompetence. When an Internet café employee recognises a man using one of the computers as Fofana and calls the police, a squad is dispatched, but mistakenly enters the building next door. Fofana sees them from inside, and is able to flee.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing in the film, though, aside from the brutal violence inflicted on Halimi, is the silence of those who knew what was going on – from the building janitor who authorised the Barbarians to hold the victim in the building to the neighbours who noticed suspicious activity, but chose to look away. A New York Times article published after the murder quoted a young man from the housing complex where Halimi was tortured as saying he “knew they had someone down there”.
As is often the case following a hate crime in France, tens of thousands of people participated in a march against racism and anti-Semitism in Paris.
But according to Zabou Breitman, who plays Ruth Halimi in “24 Jours”, that wasn’t enough. “I don’t understand how there was not more emotion, more protest about it back then. There was some, of course, but not as much as there should have been,” she is quoted as saying in the film’s press notes. “Of course, the real question is: if the same thing were to happen again today, how many people would take to the streets?”