“Free Men” by Moroccan-French director Ismael Ferroukhi was selected to represent Morocco in the 27th edition of the International Festival for Francophone Film scheduled for the end of September.
“Free Men” had won the best foreign film award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in the US, as well as the best Arab director award at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival for tackling the issue of religious tolerance and highlighting Moroccans’ role in saving Jews from Nazi tyranny.
The film revolves around Yunis, a peddler arrested by the police and forced to spy on Muslims suspected by the Nazi authorities and Vichy government of helping Jews and French resistance fighters by providing certificates that stated they are Muslim.
The film events, taking place in the years of the German occupation of Paris, also tackles the life story of artist Salim Al-Halali who was among the Jews given a certificate that proves they are Muslim by the mosque imam, in a reference to coexistence between the different Abrahamic religions.
Historians’ estimations of the number of Jews saved by mosque imams in Paris differ as some confirm that imam Qadoor Bin Ghabrit saved nearly 1600 persons from death, while Alain Poiye, the former religious affairs advisor to the French Interior Ministry, estimates the number to be no more than 500 persons.
Ferroukhi based the plot on the famous story of Salim al-Halali who told more than once of the role played by the late King Mohammed V in saving Jews from the fascists.
At 14, Salim left Algeria and headed to Marseille on a ship carrying no passengers other than cattle exported to Europe to start his journey singing in Spanish. After meeting Mahieddine Bachtarzi and Mohammed Al-Kamal he turned to Arabic singing and learned some Arabic and oriental songs after joining the Matrabiya band formed by Admon Yafil to tour some European cities and capitals, a course that placed him inside the largest music halls and theaters to sing in. The birth of a new Arab song star was announced as his fame increased in North Africa.n These were the early beginnings of Salim al-Halali in Europe.
In 1940, Salim was chased by German SS intelligence looking to arrest him and send him to the gas chambers for being Jewish. If it hadn’t been for the Paris Mosque imam at the time and delegated representative of the Alawite kingdom in Morocco under French protection Qadoor Bin Ghabrit who gave him a certificate and documents proving he was a Muslim descending from a Muslim family, gave him his father’s supposed name, then wrote on a deserted grave in the Muslim cemetery to mislead the Germans; events which eventually caused the chasing to stop.
In 1947, Salim headed to singing at night clubs after buying himself one on the Montaigne street in Paris, which was one of the most luxurious Parisian night clubs where King Farouk and some of his entourage used to spend their nights.
In 1949, Salim decided to return to Morocco and settle in Casablanca where he inaugurated the ‘Adeek al-Dhahabi” or Golden Rooster, which was one the most luxurious and most beautiful nightclubs in the world at the time. At this spot, talents and voices that became the Arab world’s leading singers were discovered like Shafya Roshdi, Mohamed Fouaiteh, Hajja Hamdawiya, al-Muti Balqasim, and Algerian Warda.
In this context, Ferroukhi said that he hoped this film will contribute in drawing attention to Muslim Arabs who engaged in resistance against the Nazis but were ignored by history to a great extent. He added in a statement to Arabstoday that Moroccan Muslims were always open to all religions and cultures in coexisting with them.
Ferroukhi clarified that through the film, he tried to highlight the tolerance of Islam and Muslims whom the west has come to view as extremist terrorists and hoped that the film would contribute in changing the negative view of Muslims and being fair to them. He also tried, according to his words, to show the role played by the Paris Mosque and its imam Qadoor Bin Ghabrit, who represented the Moroccan Sultan Mohammed V, in establishing relations between Muslims and others in an atmosphere of understanding and dialogue and documenting their part in changing the course of French history.
Ferroukhi tried to show the role Muslims played in saving Jews from Nazi tyranny despite the scarcity of documents and films on the topic. In making the film, he relied on the witness statements of many historians interested in the topic like Benjamin Stora who confirmed that the Jews saved by the Mosque were circumcised Sephardims who spoke Arabic, and were able to obtain certificates stating that they belonged to the Islamic religion.