A female voice recalling a distant, more liberal era puts it this way: "We lived in Egypt without feeling the need to prove we were Egyptians."
So says one of many, many interviewees whose stories jostle for attention in Amir Ramses' densely packed documentary "Jews of Egypt." The film makes its Chicago premiere in the weeklong African Diaspora International Film Festival hosted by Facets Cinematheque. Co-presented by ArtMattan Productions, the festival presents 14 features beginning Friday. "Jews of Egypt" screens at 8:30 p.m. Monday and 6 p.m. Thursday.
Ramses focuses on the years 1949-1956, a time when many Egyptian Jews left the country, some by choice, most by politically enforced exile. Those interviewed for the film, several of whom were residents of Alexandria, recall the Egypt of the pre-World War II era, a melting pot in their warm collective view where Jews, Muslims and Christians co-existed peaceably.
The Parisian roots and connections among many of these Egyptian Jews pull the reminiscence further and further back, in Proustian fashion. The director writes in the film's production notes that he was drawn to the "contradiction between modern intolerant Egypt and cosmopolitan Egypt in the first half of the 20th century."
In terms of technique Ramses' documentary indulges in some pretty cheesy tactics — freeze-frames, monologue-length accounts when abridged versions of the same information would suffice, a naggingly repetitive musical score. In the first 20 minutes of "Jews of Egypt" the viewer is introduced to a daunting array of experts, academics and exiles. Many of the latter view the creation of the State of Israel as an excuse for oppression and the beginning of their real troubles. This viewpoint cries out for more context and a rebuttal or at least a question or two. Ramses finds himself on safer, relatively apolitical ground — if that's even desirable with a subject such as this one — when honoring the cultural contributions of singer Laila Mourad, or playwright Yacoub Sanoua, "Egypt's Moliere."
"Jews of Egypt" - 2 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:36
Plays: 8:30 p.m. Monday, 6 p.m. Thursday at Facets Cinematheque.Copyright © 2015, RedEye