Review of Free Men
2011, France; directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi.
99 minutes. In French with English subtitles.
Free Men, an official selection of the Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festivals, is based on the true story of the Paris Mosque, which hid Jews in occupied France during World War II. Filmed with exquisite beauty and detail, the subdued tone, reflective pacing, and use of Arab-Andalusian music bring a human dimension to an often overwhelming subject. Younes is a young Algerian living in Paris, earning his living as a black marketeer. When the police get savvy, Younes agrees to spy for them at the mosque, whose rector is Ben Ghabrit. There Younes meets a young singer named Salim, only to discover that Salim is Jewish, using fake identification papers to pass as a Muslim. (Salim and Ben Ghabrit were real people; Younes is something of a composite of similar freedom fighters.) The Germans soon suspect the mosque of harboring Jews. After effectively blowing his cover as a not-very-subtle spy, Younes joins the side of the freedom fighters.
Free Men works at several levels. It is a picture of one man’s maturation from the self-centeredness of looking to make a fast buck into someone with a moral compass, whose friendships with Ben Ghabrit and Salim hone his sense of duty. At another level, the story is that of the too-little known help that Muslims extended to Jews during those horrifying years. One commonality has life-and-death consequences: a German soldier checks Younes for circumcision, and he is only spared because he is a Muslim and not a Jew. Yet the film does not wear religious matters on its sleeve; everything here becomes personal. A movie like this raises many questions, not the least of which is: Was it a common enemy that brought Muslims and Jews together in this time and place? Or was it also a common humanity? Judge for yourself. Available starting October 12, 2012.
The same question is raised by the award-winning short film Strangers (2003; directed by Erez Tadmor & Guy Nattiv), not to be confused with their full-length film of the same name. Strangers concerns a Jew and a Muslim who find themselves as fellow riders in the same subway car. In just over seven minutes, this film makes us ask: what exactly is it that brings people together, even momentarily? (On YouTube)
For more about Muslims who aided Jews during the Holocaust, see these resources:
- “When Muslims Saved Jews”
- Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands by Robert Satloff (see amazon.com)
- Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, photography by Norman H. Gershman and first-person commentaries (see amazon.com). Besa refers to a core value of Albanian Muslim culture that entails the obligation of saving other’s lives in time of need. This story is also being produced as a film, Besa: The Promise (formerly titled God’s House). More information at eyecontactfoundation.org and bitly.com/besa_movie
For another perspective on Jews and Muslims coming together, read “The Sulha”