In 2006, Ilan Halimi was abducted off the streets of a Paris suburb by a group identifying themselves as the Gang of Barbarians. For nearly a month, the 23-year-old Jewish man was tortured until he died.
Based on the book by Ilan’s mother Ruth, and filmed in France in 2014, “24 Days: The True Story of the Ilan Halimi Affair” is a gripping dramatization of the massive police manhunt and the family’s nightmarish ordeal as they race the clock to find Ilan and his abductors. The film portrays a despicable episode in recent French history – one that seems to have taken on almost prophetic significance, in light of last week’s events in Paris.
“24 Days” will have its Connecticut premiere on Monday, March 16, 7 p.m. at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, as part of the 19th Annual Hartford Jewish Film Festival. The Festival will run from March 12 to 22, and will feature 19 films from 10 countries, presented at seven venues. For more information, or to receive the Festival brochure, visit www.hjff.org.
Prior to the events that unfolded in Paris last week, the director of “24 Days,” Alexandre Aracady, talked about the making of his film and the message it carries. The following is an excerpt of that interview.
Q: Why did you find it necessary to make a film on the death of Ilan Halimi and the “Gang of the Barbarians”?
A: First off, I would like to clarify that “24 Days” isn’t a film about the Gang of the Barbarians, but a film that bears witness to the martyring of Ilan Halimi. As a filmmaker I have always maintained an attentive eye towards factuality and history. These choices show my desire to attend to current events and to consider that cinema can be a tool for awakening, a way of creating awareness. Naturally, I couldn’t be indifferent to this assassination that shocked our country in 2006. There are moments in life where we are pushed, outraged, appalled. The death of Ilan, the first young Jew to be killed in France since the Holocaust, was an event that hurt me, as it hurt many among us. This anti-Semitic crime wasn’t a random act, but a grave product of a societal phenomenon.
Q: How do you approach such a subject with film? Did basing the film on Ruth Halimi’s book seem to you the most appropriate mode of making “24 Days?”
A: I wouldn’t have made this film without Ruth Halimi and Emilie Frèche’s account in 24 Jours: la vérité sur la mort d’Ilan Halimi (24 Days: The Truth about the Death of Ilan Halimi). Reading it, I had the impression that Ruth Halimi wrote this book to indicate the path for me to take. A line of hers was a eureka moment for me as a filmmaker: “I would like Ilan’s death to serve as an alert.” To ring the alarm, to not remain with crossed arms, to help this tragedy open our eyes. And above all else, to be on the side of the victims, not the hangmen. To be on the side of those who have suffered, those who have endured nauseating, heinous, irrational assaults by the group later known as the “Gang of the Barbarians”.
Q: Was it difficult to develop a drama, a sense of “suspense,” because we know the tragic ending?
A: There is a cinematic drama, a concern, but I don’t like the word “suspense.” There is hope, desperation, anguish, joy, rage, grief in this film. Sadly it’s all true: the nearly 700 telephone calls, the irrational ransom demands, the insults, the threats, the promises of meeting revoked as soon as they were given, Fofana’s many trips to the Ivory Coast, his questioning in broad daylight and his missed arrest at the Internet café… All of it is cruelly true. These events needed to be truthfully translated to the screen, without pathos – in their extreme actuality, relying on documents, statements, police reports; recounting as clearly as possible what happened, maintaining Ruth Halimi’s account, the account of the whole family and the Police during those 24 days. The adaptation I wrote with Antoine Lacomblez and Emilie Frèche had to be constantly in step with that horrifying reality: “It happened to this family, it could have happened to any one of us.”
Q: Do you think Ilan’s death could have been avoided?
A: From the moment when his mother discovered the letter his abductors sent to a rabbi announcing that “a Jew had been kidnapped,” she understood that in their minds they were no longer holding a man but a Jew. She knew, she could feel, that she was going to lose her son. The killing of her son was planned; it was inevitable.
Anti-Semitism is rooted so deeply in certain “territories lost by the Republic” that even a mother’s intuition made no difference, no one listened to her. Wrapped up in the investigation, the police didn’t perceive the risks Ilan faced.
Q: Are you saying the abductors no longer saw Ilan Halimi as a human being?
A: Exactly. For them he was like an animal. Though he was like them, he was the same age, the same nationality, the same dreams, the same difficulties, and yet, we return to the old schemas we thought disappeared with the Nazis and the final solution. All the elements were there: a Jew, who is locked away and starved and tortured, before having his head shaved, being disinfected, and thrown into a forest with passing trains, who is later burned… All the themes of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust were reproduced during the abduction and assassination of young Ilan Halimi.
Q: Do you think this 2006 tragedy is reflective of a sick society that, terribly, resonates today?
A: It is the result of a society that isn’t in a good place. We are living in an unhealthy period when pseudo-humorists become the cantors of that which is foul, of racism and of anti-Semitism. We see that certain fragile minds are ready to accept these types of ideas. Nothing is innocent. When we arrive somewhere as a society, we can understand and analyze how we got here by looking back a few years: and can find a total disinformation surrounding the events in the Middle East. We lump together French Jews, Israelis, Zionists, Palestinian murderers. In the words of Mohamed Merah: “I’m going to kill young Jewish school kids to avenge Palestinian children.”
I am reminded of an article I read in the Nouvel Observateur that terrified me: a young boy from that suburb was interviewed, he was 13 years old and said that after watching news on France 2 during the intifada he got together with his friends in a parking lot with the intention of nothing but “getting a Jew…”
That wording is practically unimaginable. Their psyches lead into a spiral of hate that dehumanizes Jews. Today, there are people like comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala who use anti-Semitic slogans who deny the Holocaust and further the infamous “quenelle” hand-gesture. All this is revolting and despicable. It’s hard to believe that in the streets of Paris today you can hear thousands cry: “Jew, France does not belong to you” and “Faurisson is right, the Holocaust is bull”.
Q: You designed your film as a citizen’s act. Is it not also a memorial act surrounding a tragedy that must not be forgotten?
A: Besides being a feature film with intrigue, history, and great actors, I think this film will not only shock viewers but also serve as a memorial for Ilan. Viewers can’t remain unmoved by what they will see and discover. This will provoke reflection. I made “24 Days” to leave a trace and speak the truth, so this tragedy won’t fade from memory. Today, when you speak of Ilan Halimi, few remember his name. In contrast, when you evoke the “Gang of the Barbarians,” something resonates. It’s paradoxical to think that in France the executioners are better known than the victims. We more easily recognize the name of Mohamed Merah than the names of the children he killed in Toulouse.
I would like to add a beautiful aside: to lend homage to Ilan, Bertrand Delanoë the Mayor of Paris, and one of his assistants, Karen Taïeb, were looking for a garden in Paris to place a tribute to Ilan because in Hebrew Ilan means “tree.” By chance, if coincidence even exists, a garden in the twelfth arrondissement was nameless. They chose it without knowing that Ilan had lived 100 meters from there, and that garden was where he had spent his childhood.
There is a very significant scene in the film where police officers proceed to arrest gang members. In the ghetto where Ilan was being held, one of them looks around at the buildings and says: “And say that no one saw or heard anything!”
We live in a dehumanized society where often fear of the Other reduces solidarity and fundamental human values. In the Bagneux ghetto, there were at least 500 people who could have understood a man was being held captive just steps away from them. There are signs that don’t lie. Very little would have been sufficient to save Ilan, but the law of silence prevailed.
Q: So, is it society that engenders “monsters”?
A: Society is a convenient scapegoat. I’ve had enough of trying to find excuses for the assassins. No attenuating circumstances – difficult childhood, the absence of a father – enough! They chose a victim by way of the old stereotype that Jews have money and a united community, which they chose to exploit, and it’s unforgivable.