Poised to become the definitive film on the complex history of French jewry, Yves Jeuland’s sweeping new documentary Being Jewish in France begins with the Dreyfus Affair and ends with contemporary charges of escalating anti-Semitism.
New York Jewish Film Festival correspondent Ronit Waisbrod spoke with the filmmaker.
Ronit Waisbrod: How did the idea of making a film about the history of French Jewry come about?
Yves Jeuland: Judasim and Jewish history interested me since I was a teenager. In 2004 I read Michel Winock’s new book La France et les Juifs (France and the Jews) and immediately wanted to tell that story with images and Michel Winock became the historical advisor of the film.
RW: In your previous films you addressed political and social issues such as the history of the gay movement in France (Bleu blanc rose, 2002), the controversy over gay marriage, the election process in Paris in 1991 (Paris à tout prix), and the the history and evolution of the communist party (Camarades, 2004). Did the idea of ‘Being Jewish in France’ arise from the same sensibility to French historical and political processes?
YJ: In my films I am intrigued by politics, elections, the ways power affects the personality and choices of those who hold it. I like to alternate between past and present, between historical documentaries based on archival research, and films that concern contemporary issues. I started working with archival material with ‘Bleu blanc rose’ (2002), ‘Camarades’ (2004), and then ‘Le Siècle des socialistes’ (2005). With ‘Being Jewish in France’ I expanded to a pre-20th century era. I love working with archival material and have interests beyond the history of minorities, or social and political movements. It is interesting that only now I perceive my ‘gay, communist, socialist, and Jew’ films as a ‘collection.’ It was not planned as such.
RW: The film is 3 hours long; how did you decide what material to include and which to leave out?
YJ: Originally the film was meant to be two episodes of 52 minutes each. Even after editing, the film was almost twice as long. Luckily I had the freedom and flexibility to work out of format. I’m not sure if the film is complete but I am satisfied with the end result. There is also a version in four episodes of approximately 48 minutes each, with the same content but different editing.
When I made the film I tried to avoid an encyclopedic approach and concentrate of cinematography. In my opinion, an historical documentary reflects a point of view on a certain time period. It is subjective; and the more subjective you are, the more rigorous and honest you have to be.