The searing Israeli documentary “Child Mother” — which will receive its West Coast premiere at this year’s Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival — turns the camera on elderly Jewish women from Yemen and Morocco who were forced to become brides from as young as age 5.
In the film, four immigrants tell their stories on camera: How they were brutalized as children by a society that sanctioned what was essentially legalized rape, and how they later toiled long hours, as housecleaners or forest workers, to support numerous children and aging husbands in Israel.
Esther, 84, describes jumping off a roof when she is ordered, at 12, to marry a much older man; Naomi recounts how a 13-year-old cousin doused herself with gasoline and burned herself to death rather than return to her forced marriage; Shoshana speaks of having eight children with a man she both feared and despised; and Hana, 98, recalls her horror at having to marry a man almost 50 years her senior.
The movie — in which interviewees tell their stories, often for the first time, to their children, who are shocked and devastated by the revelations — won a jury and a cinematography award at this year’s Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival and premiered this month at the DOK Leipzig film festival in Germany.
The film will be showcased at the Los Angeles festival, which runs Nov. 13-20 and includes 10 movies and documentaries. The festival’s lifetime achievement honoree will be Enrico Macias, the acclaimed Sephardic French singer and human rights activist, who will receive his award at the festival’s opening night gala at Paramount Pictures Studios on Nov. 13.
One theme in this year’s lineup “is that there’s a bit more honesty in films that are portraying the Sephardic experience,” said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, which presents the festival. “Some of the [previous] films made about Sephardic Judaism were very romanticized — either made by Sephardic filmmakers who wanted, in the old-school mentality, to defend the beauty of the tradition in a kind of grandiose way, or by Ashkenazim who wanted to fetishize Sephardic culture as exotic or different. But today, I think filmmakers are wanting to tell not only of the wonderful experiences but also the painful experiences that were true of the Sephardic [world].”
“Child Mother” exposes the horrific practice of marrying off very young girls in North Africa; it’s a fate that has impacted thousands of immigrants to Israel, according to the film’s co-director, Ronen Zaretsky, who made the movie along with his wife, Yael Kipper.
Yet the Ashkenazi documentarians (“Super Women”) were unfamiliar with the child bride tradition until they moved to Ma’alot from Tel Aviv six years ago. There, they chanced to visit a senior center frequented by elderly North African immigrants and heard such stories firsthand.
“It was a moment we will never forget, because each one told us they were married at 8, 10 or 11 years old,” Zaretsky said in a telephone interview from the couple’s home in Ma’alot. “One of them told us that when she was 8, she was in the hospital for three months after the first time she was with her husband. She almost died from the rape.” Other women remained frightened of men and seemed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2012, Zaretsky and Kipper began interviews with more than 500 former child brides they found at senior centers all over Israel; they decided to film the immigrants telling their stories to their children to serve as a kind of “filter,” he said. The filmmakers intuited that their interviewees would not tell their children the most violent details on camera, which might be too disturbing to include in a movie.
Even so, several of the middle-aged children had trouble absorbing their mothers’ brutal experiences. When one woman describes how her mother-in-law used to beat her daily, her daughter retorts, “She was just trying to teach you … to make you strong.” Hana’s son, Avi, initially defends his father by saying that child marriage was a cultural norm and that any man — even an elderly one — would prefer a pretty young wife.
But all of the children eventually come to respect what their mothers went through and develop a better understanding of their own, often fraught relationships with their parents.
While most viewers at the Leipzig festival applauded “Child Mother,” a number of audience members complained that the film exposes a less than positive aspect of the Sephardic experience.
Bouskila acknowledged that “Child Mother” might prove controversial for some at the upcoming Sephardic Film Festival. “We’ve previously used the festival as a week to take our culture to the public and be proud of it,” he said. “How beautiful the music was, how the cooking was amazing and the families so unified. And suddenly, you show a film like this — it might anger some people. But that’s a good thing, because we need to be honest about portraying the full story and not just the nostalgic [fare].”
The festival will screen its share of more upbeat films, including several that highlight how Sephardic culture continues to build bridges between Muslims and Jews.
The opening night feature, Jerome Cohen-Olivar’s “The Midnight Orchestra,” centers on a brooding young man, the son of a famous Jewish musician, who returns to his native Morocco. Following his father’s death, he embarks on a transformative journey to find the Jewish and Arab musicians who performed with his father and discovers his own unique cultural identity.
“On the Banks of the Tigris” spotlights the Muslim Iraqi-Australian Majid Shoker, who discovers that many of the beloved songs he grew up with were actually written by Iraqi Jews. And in the documentary “Arabic Movie,” Israelis wax nostalgic about the years when Israel had only one television
channel and everyone would eagerly watch the weekly airing of an Arabic musical or melodrama.
In this way, the Sephardic festival’s slate “shows the history of Muslim and Jewish co-existence for thousands of years, and how it can work again today,” said Neil Sheff, the festival’s co-founder.
For information and tickets to the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.