There are films that make you thankful for what you have, and then there are others that make you grateful for what you don’t. After seeing 24 Jours (24 Days), I am glad that I am not yet a mother. If I had children, I am certain I would have spent a sleepless night worrying about their safety.
This heartbreaking 2014 French thriller opens with a monologue from Ruth Halimi, portrayed by Zabou Breitman. “It happened to me, but it could have happened to anyone else,” she says.
She is referring to the kidnapping, torture and death of her son, 23-year-old Ilan. Directed by Alexandre Arcady, the film is based on 24 Jours: la vérité sur la mort d’Ilan Halimi (24 Days: The truth about the death of Ilan Halimi), the book written by Ruth Halimi and Emilie Frèche about the drawn-out, cold-blooded murder that shocked France in 2006.
Arcady says he demonstrates a desire “to attend to current events and to consider that cinema can be a tool for awakening, a way of creating awareness.” He says that in Halimi’s book, one of her lines was a eureka moment for him as a filmmaker: “I would like Ilan’s death to serve as an alert.”
On a Friday night, Ruth’s son comes home for a casual Shabbat dinner with family. While traditions remain in place, he is welcome to head out after dinner. During a brief phone call, he arranges to meet with a stunning young woman who recently gave him her number while he was working at a cellphone store.
A decorative soccer ball dangles from his keys, the lone accessory selected by an average young man. Later, we’ll see that same trinket clutched between his duct-taped hands. A newspaper balanced in the crook of his arms as his nose peers out from a mask of the silver-colored tape.
He meets the Mediterranean-looking beauty in a restaurant and they share a dessert: seduction by whipped cream. The evening’s sweetness abruptly fades when the young man is nabbed while escorting his date home. The woman, he learns, was a lure.
His name, household decorations and family life tell viewers he’s Jewish. But tellingly, we initially only hear the kidnappers and their accomplices refer to Ilan as a Jew.
The lead detective refuses to believe this crime could be motivated by anti-Semitism. He insists the kidnapping was fueled by money. But before the family realizes Ilan’s Jewish background is relevant, it becomes clear to the viewer.
“Why my son?” his father asks police, who in turn ask him if he’s wealthy. He is not, which makes the crime even more confusing. To his kidnappers, Ilan is a Jew, and therefore must have money.
“How can you tell it’s a Jew?” a female accomplice asks the lure. The use of the term “it” in highlights the dehumanization of Ilan in the eyes of his abductors. As Ruth later points out to the police, one of the ransom notes says that “a Jew was kidnapped” – not “a man,” she notes.
For three weeks, the kidnappers torture Ilan physically and his family emotionally. They make hundreds of phone calls, change their ransom demands and back out of exchanges. Meanwhile, Ilan becomes increasingly weak, as his guards stop bothering to care for him.
Simply put, these are not professionals. But the police insist the kidnappers are just bluffing. They aren’t going to hurt their hostage. They just want money, right?
For the American viewer, there are parallels to current events, not only with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, including in France, but also in the United States, where people – especially minorities– have become increasingly wary of interactions with the police.
We live in a time when violent acts against black men and women are defended as not being racially motivated, despite the gut feeling that we, the American people, know better. Watching this film about a young man who is obviously targeted because he is Jewish, I can’t help but think of the deaths of unarmed black men committed and excused in the name of self-defense.
24 Jours, with English subtitles, was among dozens of films selected for this year’s recently concluded Filmfest DC, an annual international film festival. Festival Director Tony Gittens says, “We felt it was timely and ‘ripped out of today’s headlines,’ as they say, and we felt that it did touch on issues that were happening now, even though the real issue took place in , so we see that there’s not a lot of change.”
““This anti-Semitic crime wasn’t a random act,” Arcady, the director, says, “but a grave product of a societal phenomenon.”
Anti-Semitism is not dead, and films such as 24 Jours provide the important service of driving that message home. News cycles quickly move on to the next hot topic, but through art, stories linger. In doing so, may they inspire us to act.