"When Moroccan filmmaker Hassan Benjelloun was a boy, he went out in the street one day to discover that half his neighbours had disappeared. Their doors were all shuttered. "I ran to my mother and asked, 'Why are the doors shut?' " he recalled in a recent interview, in French, from Casablanca. "She told me, 'They have all gone to Palestine.' It was the first time I had ever heard of Palestine."
"The Jewish exodus from Morocco in the 1960s, which decimated an ancient community, and separated friends, neighbours and business partners, has rankled Benjelloun ever since. As Morocco became increasingly liberalized in the 1990s, the filmmaker worked his way through the sore spots of his country's recent history, making feature films about the brutal political repression of the 1970s and the subjugation of women.
"Inevitably, he turned to the subject of the exodus. The result, surprisingly, is a bittersweet comedy entitled Où vas-tu Moshé? (Where Are You Going, Moshe?), a Moroccan-Canadian co-production. It is one of four Moroccan films in the French-language festival CinéFranco now under way in Toronto, and it will also enjoy a wider release in late April.
"The film suggests that both the government of Morocco, independent since 1956, and the young state of Israel were complicit in getting all but a few thousand of Morocco's 260,000 Jews to immigrate clandestinely in the early 1960s. But its story focuses on the little people buffeted by forces larger than themselves: If all the Jews of Bejjad leave town, and the local council succeeds in its program of Islamification, poor Mustapha will lose his bar licence. Luckily for him, the old watchmaker and musician Shlomo can't make up his mind to go, and he soon finds himself courted by the devout and the drinkers alike.
"The film portrays Moroccan Jews and Muslims living side by side, all speaking the mix of Arabic and French that is characteristic of North Africa. In one scene that surely owes much to Benjelloun's childhood memories, a young boy whose family is sneaking away at night runs back upstairs, bursts into the neighbouring apartment, and throws himself into the arms of the little Muslim friend from whom he cannot bear to be parted. "I wanted to remove the confusion of Jew and Zionist," says the filmmaker. "Today, if you say Jewish [in the Arab world], you mean Zionist. ... They were our friends and our neighbours."