Film Review: Jews of Egypt

Though it has its interesting sections, this stilted documentary is more suited to a museum archive than a theatrical venue.

While recent documentaries like the Oscar-nominated The Square attempt to enlighten moviegoers about the tumultuous state of modern Egypt, Jews of Egypt invites us into the country's past, specifically the relatively peaceful period between the 1940s and 1952, when the military seized power. Director Amir Ramses explores this era through the eyes of Egypt's small but vibrant Jewish population who arrived from war-torn Europe, the children of whom comprise most of the film’s talking heads. Their memories present mid-twentieth-century Egypt as a place of peace, tolerance and prosperity, where Jews occupied prominent positions in art, business and culture without fear of discrimination and prejudice.

That abruptly changed as the Zionist movement gathered force after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The upheaval brought about by the 1952 military coup and the ensuing Suez Crisis—which found Israel allying with Britain and France in opposition to Egypt's decision to nationalize the canal four years later—further complicated the lives of Egypt's Jews, with some families moving away voluntarily while many more were essentially ejected, their nationality erased so that they'd be unable to return.

Because most of the documentary's Jewish subjects were children when they left Egypt, their descriptions of the specifics of their expulsion are often hazy. The one detail that unites their various personal histories is the suddenness with which they were uprooted from the comfortable lives they knew. To provide some necessary historical context, Ramses turns to various scholars, who outline the larger events occurring outside the Jewish community, including the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the incidents that precipitated the Suez Crisis.

He also carves out room for one fervent Islamist—and veteran Brotherhood member—to offer his own, highly biased slant on why the Jews were banished from Egypt, reasons he predictably chalks up to their supposedly radical beliefs and Zionist leanings. Though the director refrains from challenging him, he's plainly presented as the villain of the film, a stand-in for the faceless post-revolutionary government that cast out the Jewish population as an act of retribution and intolerance.

There's obviously great sociological and historical insight to be gleaned from this subject matter and Ramses does capture some compelling and even moving nuggets of testimony from the people he interviews. (In a particularly interesting aside, one woman explains that her family never seriously considered moving to Israel from Egypt, because life there seemed too harsh. As she puts it, it was considered a place for less well-off Jews.) But the film's static formalism—alternating point-and-shoot interviews with grainy archival footage—and narrow worldview make it seem more appropriate for a museum exhibit, where it could be enhanced with photos, writings and other elements that present a fuller picture of Egypt at that time.

There are also two sizeable elephants in the room that Ramses fails to address. The first is that all of the Jewish families that the director profiles were part of Egypt's middle and upper classes and thus enjoyed a quality of life that wasn't necessarily shared by everyone. Also, despite their insistence that they lived in peace alongside people of many different faiths, it's telling that the Muslims they were closest to were often domestic help. While those bonds were undoubtedly genuine (or at least appeared that way at the time), it's hard not to hear echoes of aged white Southerners who play down the racial and class inequalities in mid-twentieth-century America because they remember their African-American nannies and maids as poised and pleasant.

Second and more importantly, because these interviews appear to have been completed several years ago, there's no mention of the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, which has been followed by a turbulent period where power has repeatedly changed hands. Even though the documentary's focus is largely on the past, it's an enormous oversight on the director's part to not connect the two periods through either a postscript or, preferably, a longer epilogue. Instead, the movie ends with several of the subjects describing their desire to return to Egypt and one man who actually did make a trip back and recounts his visit to his family's home in Alexandria, well before the events in Tahir Square.  While this story is intended to allow him and us to see the land he remembers from his childhood, it instead has the effect of reminding the audience that even that  version of Egypt is gone, replaced by a nation that's in the midst of yet another transformation.