September 18, 2018

Tracking the Resurgence of French Anti-Semitism

There are a half million Jews in France, the world’s third largest Jewish population after Israel and the United States. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murders of four Jews at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, thousands of French Jews have left for Israel and the U.S. The climate of hatred, fear and resurgent anti-Semitism that has led to the exodus is the subject of filmmaker Laura Fairrie’s documentary “Spiral.”

In the summer of 2014, London-based Fairrie became aware of the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, including personal attacks and synagogue vandalism, and the attacks in Paris compelled her to make the film. 

Initially, she cast a wide net and considered several places in Europe but ultimately decided to concentrate on France because it was “the epicenter of the problem. I wanted to convey the urgency of the situation, the emotion, how this is affecting different people’s lives, what it’s like to feel suddenly unsafe and distrust your neighbors and to capture a sense of how the world was changing,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in London.

However, the undertaking often made her think she’d taken on too much. “This is an incredibly difficult subject,” she said. “I tried to shed a light on anti-Semitism as it’s happening now and look at it from different perspectives, not make it a one-sided story. And that definitely made my job harder.” 

Her subjects include French Jews who are staying in France and others who have fled to Israel, disenfranchised Black and Muslim Frenchmen, the mayor of a Palestinian town, young Palestinians who want their land back, French-African Holocaust denier and rabid anti-Semite Dieudonné M’Balla M’Balla, and the prosecutor trying to put him behind bars for hate crimes. 

“You have to show where the poison is coming from,” Fairrie said of her decision to include M’Balla M’Balla in the documentary. “Dealing with Dieudonné and the people around him was especially difficult, but that was one of many challenges, starting with the language barrier.” 

“You have to show where the poison is coming from. Dealing with Dieudonné and the people around him was especially difficult, but that was one of many challenges, starting with the language barrier.”  — Laura Fairrie

Securing participation of so many people in different countries speaking different languages was also a hurdle Fairrie had to overcome. “When you make a documentary, it’s about building trust and connections with the people you want to film and persuading them to tell their stories,” she said.

Over a period of almost two years, she went back and forth to France and traveled to Israel several times. “You can’t make a film about contemporary anti-Semitism without including Israel,” she said. Armed with a list of possible contacts, she “went twice to cast [the subjects] and find people to look after us, and went back on three or four trips” to film in the West Bank. “It’s amazing we got the access that we did,” she said.

The daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, Fairrie went to Israel when her husband, who is Jewish, was making a drama series there. “I wasn’t brought up Jewish,” she said. “My [paternal] grandmother whisked me off to have me christened without my mother knowing about it. But I have a very strong sense of my Jewish history. My husband’s maternal grandmother, who was from Hungary, got out of Europe on the last boat from France to Brazil, but several family members were lost. I understand what it’s like to live in fear.”

Fairrie, who began her career in television news, said she “wanted something more creative and more long-form” and found that making documentaries like “The Battle for Barking,” about British politics, and “Taking on the Tabloids,” about actor Hugh Grant’s fight with the press. She considers “Spiral” to be her most “urgent and important” film to date.

“I think the problem has gotten worse since I made the film,” she said. “This rising atmosphere of hatred and intolerance, people feeling they can be openly hateful toward each other, started with the bubbling up of anti-Semitism. I see it as the canary in the coal mine. What used to be unacceptable now seems to be acceptable. It’s like a lid coming off Pandora’s box.” 

The overall message of the film, Fairrie said, “is to check our fears and make sure we’re not distrusting other people unnecessarily. Another point I wanted to make was how lives are disconnected yet interconnected, the idea that people who don’t know each other and live in different places have an impact on each other’s lives through their thoughts and actions. I think the film provokes debate about really important and complex issues, and that’s a good thing.”

 “Spiral” opens in theaters June 22.