August 17, 2019

The kidnapping that shocked the world

The 2006 Paris kidnapping of a young Jewish man sent waves of alarm throughout Europe and the world. Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old cellphone salesman, was held hostage and tortured for 24 days while his captors, African and North African criminals who called themselves the “Gang of Barbarians,” demanded his family pay a ransom. It took police a couple weeks to realize the kidnapping was inspired by anti-Semitism, while his family despaired that not enough was being done to rescue him.

The kidnapping and subsequent police manhunt are the subject of “24 Days,” a French film based on the memoir of the same name written by Halimi’s mother, Ruth Halimi, and co-written with Émily Frèche. Ruth’s harrowing account of the saga accounts for much of the film.

Director Alexandre Arcady says that like many French citizens, he was horrified by the story when it unfolded nearly a decade ago. “I was shocked, puzzled, dismayed and absolutely flabbergasted when these events took place in 2006,” Arcady said by phone through a translator. “I also took part in the demonstrations in Paris when this happened. And I was shocked to realize that the participants were mainly from the Jewish community, whereas before, when there had been attacks on the Carpentras cemetery, about one million people walked in the streets and demonstrated.”

Arcady referred to the 1990 desecration of 35 graves at a Jewish cemetery in the southern town of Carpentras. A French court sentenced four neo-Nazis to prison for that crime.

“This was the first time someone Jewish was assassinated since the Holocaust,” Arcady said of Halimi’s 2006 killing.

Arcady discussed the project with Ruth Halimi and Émily Frèche, and eventually with the rest of Ilan’s family. Arcady said that while other directors had approached her in the past hoping to tell her son’s story, she trusted him to direct an honest account of what transpired.

“I explained to her how and why I wanted to make this movie, and even though there were many other directors involved who were very interested in bringing this to the screen, she decided to select me to show this tragedy,” Arcady said.

French authorities believe the kidnappers used a beautiful 17-year-old girl of French-Iranian origin as bait. She invited Ilan Halimi on a date and then lured him back to her home in the Paris suburbs. There, a group of young men assaulted him, threw him in a car and brought him to an apartment, where he was chained to a radiator. At least 19 young men took turns beating, stabbing and burning him. His head was wrapped in duct tape so he could only breathe and eat through a straw. “24 Days” shows the ordeal in gruesome detail.

The gangsters targeted Halimi because they assumed all Jews are rich. The gang’s leader, Youssouf Fofana (played by Tony Harrison), was born in Paris to parents from the Ivory Coast; he called Halimi’s family hundreds of time, taunting them and demanding money (initially 450,000 Euros, though the number kept changing). Fofana made calls from Paris and the Ivory Coast using discardable cell phones, and sent emails from cyber cafes, making him difficult to trace.

In one scene, Ruth Halimi (played powerfully by Zabou Breitman), explodes at the perpetually calm Police Commander Delcour (Jacques Gamblin) and police psychologist Brigitte Farrell (Sylvie Testud), insisting they give the captors whatever they want to get her son back. She also clashes with her estranged husband and Ilan’s father, Didier (Pascal Elbe), who is more trusting of the police’s approach to the case.

“There were mistakes, of course, made in the evaluations that the police made,” Arcady said. “But the police worked for 24 days, for 24 hours a day, and they really put in all the manpower that they could. But, unfortunately, they made a lot of mistakes. They were worried about being fooled, and that led them to make mistakes, because they didn’t take the case as an anti-Semitic case, they saw it as a criminal event. But you can’t really blame them, because there’s always an element of chance, and, as Ruth Halimi says, her son didn’t have a chance.”

The film focuses solely on the Halimi case, but fails to place the story in a historical context. The Halimi kidnapping occurred just three months after widespread riots by mainly Arab, North African, and black second-generation immigrants in the Paris suburbs, and police were still on edge and hesitant to stir up more tension. There was also the 2004 incident in which a young woman claimed that six men of North African descent grabbed her on a Paris suburban train, robbed her, cut her hair, ripped her clothes, and drew three swastikas on her body. She later admitted to fabricating the entire story, another reason politicians were cautious to alert the public to Halimi’s abduction.

Halimi was eventually found naked and handcuffed near a railway station just outside Paris. His body was mostly burned with acid and gasoline, and he had broken bones and was missing an ear and big toe. He died en route to a hospital.

A total of 27 people were tried for his kidnapping and murder in 2009. Fofana was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 22 years. Others received shorter prison sentences, some suspended, and three were acquitted. Arcady said it was important that his film not offer any defense for their actions.

“My main concern was not to be supportive of the ‘Gang of Barbarians.’ I didn’t want to give them any excuses to explain their actions, because their acts were so horrifying that they were inexcusable,” Arcady said. “I’m sick of French commentators saying it’s not their fault, it’s the fault of society. For me, if you raise a gun or a knife to someone, you can’t blame society. A man is behind that, not society.”

Halimi’s death and the police’s inept handling of his kidnapping news sent shock waves throughout the world. The fact that such a thing could happen in France, which has the largest Jewish population in Europe, set off alarms about a rise in anti-Semitism across the continent.
In the film, Ruth Halimi is interviewed by a French radio station after her son’s death, and says that her son was targeted because he was Jewish, and that she wanted to “sound an alarm.”

“My movie is supposed to sound an alarm in the same way as the book did and the mother did. I wanted to make this statement loud and clear, to bring an awareness to this problem,” Arcady said. “Unfortunately, since 2006 we had Mohamed Merah in Toulouse [a 23-year-old French petty criminal of Algerian descent, who attacked French soldiers in March 2012, reportedly because of France’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan], Amedy Coulibaly’s attacks on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris [in January 2015], and then also a lot of attacks in Brussels. All this has happened since 2006.”

Arcady says the Halimi kidnapping foreshadowed the rise of radical Islam and anti-Semitism in France. With the release of “24 Days” in theaters, on video on demand, and with plans to show it on French television, Arcady hopes the tragic story of Ilan Halimi continues to sound an alarm.

“24 Days” is playing at the Laemmle Music Hall.