The harrowing but critically important French film 24 Days opened last Friday at the Wilmette Theater.
When last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival gave 24 Days their Lia Award celebrating films dealing with Jewish Heritage, they wrote: “This suspenseful drama manages to avoid clichés and intricately presents the experience of anti-Jewish violence in France. This is a film of great social significance that shows the tragic consequences that arise when violence is ignored and when racist stereotypes are accepted.”
That was last July, well before “Je Suis Charlie” and the four murders at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in January. So even if you don’t feel up to going, you know in your heart that you should go, if only to bear witness.
Director Alexandre Arcady wrote the screenplay with Emilie Frèche who helped write the source book 24 Days, The Truth about the Death of Ilan Halimi with Ruth Halimi (the mother of Ilan Halimi), so it is no surprise that the adaptation is told from Ruth’s point of view. Nevertheless the filmmakers (who also include award-winning screenwriter Antoine Lacomblez) have done their best to adhere to the facts of the case, adamantly refusing to make their story anymore “sensational” than it already is.
Briefly stated, the facts of the case are as follows:
On January 20, 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old cell phone salesman, is abducted. After Shabbat dinner at his mother’s apartment, he leaves for a meet-up with a young woman customer and never returns. Unbeknownst to him, she is working for a group calling itself “The Gang of Barbarians.” Ilan is hustled into a car and spirited away to a vacant apartment in Bagneux (a slum on the southern edge of Paris).
On January 21, 2006, the next day, Ilan’s family receives the first in a series of ransom demands. The first demand is for 450,000 Euros (approximately $500K), an amount incalculably greater than his family’s ordinary middle class resources. The family contacts the police. Working under the assumption that they are dealing with a routine case of extortion, the police instruct the family to keep the abduction as quiet as possible while they pursue leads and zero in on the perpetrators.
On January 29, 2006, nine days after his abduction, Ilan is moved from the apartment to the boiler room of a neighboring building. In the interim, Didier Halimi, Ilan’s father, has become the voice of the family. Didier, extensively coached by a police psychologist, engages in numerous telephone negotiations with gang leader Youssouf Fofana. Ruth Halimi, on the other hand, is told to return to work and act in public as if everything is normal.
Unable to get money from Didier, Youssouf contacts a rabbi who has had no prior relationship with the Halimi family. When they demand ransom money from him, the rabbi immediately contacts the police. At this point, the Halimis realize their son was abducted because he was Jewish, but the police continue to treat the case as extortion, rejecting any anti-Semitic implications.
On February 13, 2006, 24 days after his abduction, Ilan is found in the woods near the train tracks at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois (about 15 miles south of Paris). He dies en route to the hospital.
On February 23, 2006, 10 days after Ilan’s death, Youssouf Fofana is arrested in Côte d'Ivoire (his parents' homeland).
On March 4, 2006, Fofana is extradited to France.
On February 9, 2007, Ilan’s body -- exhumed from the Cimetière Parisien de Pantin near Paris at the request of his mother -- is reburied on Har HaMenuchot in Jerusalem.
On February 18, 2008, Youssouf Fofana and 20 accomplices are brought before the Criminal Court. Fofana is sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 22 years. Nineteen suspects receive prison sentences for kidnapping and assassination. Seven other suspects are sent to prison for obstruction of justice.
Rather than dwell on the gruesome physical details of Ilan’s captivity, the filmmakers focus on the mental torture of those who are desperate to save him. Zabou Breitman is riveting in the central role of Ruth, playing her most heartbreaking scenes with Pascal Elbé as Didier (an ex-husband from whom she has been divorced for decades) and Jacques Gamblin as Commandant Delcour (the skeptical head of the Police investigative team).
Elbé is also tasked with playing monkey-in-the-middle between Tony Harrisson (blazing hot as Youssouf Fofana) and Sylvie Testud (icy cold as police psychologist Brigitte Farell). The fact that Sylvie Testud -- winner of multiple César Awards and the best-known member of this cast -- is in such a small role, adds to the subtext. Even the best of us may think we know more than we do, and resist explanations that fall outside our comfort zone.
Syrus Shahidi, cast as Ilan, is only seen at the very beginning, but establishes himself easily as a sweet and loveable son. What is most important, in context, is his convincing portrayal of an “everyman.” Ilan was just a guy with his whole life ahead of him, until that life was cut tragically short.
For more information, including tickets and times, visit the Wilmette Theater website.
For addition locations in the USA plus VOD link to iTunes, visit the Menemsha Films website.
Read more “Real-to-Reel” background on my blog.
Top photo: Zabou Breitman as Ruth Halimi with Pascal Elbe as her ex-husband Didier, plus Alka Balbir as their daughter Yaël and Audrey Giacomini as Ilan’s friend Mony.
Bottom photo: Zabou Breitman as Ruth Halimi with Syrus Shahidi as her beloved son, Ilan.
Photos courtesy of Menemsha Films.