Rebels with a cause

This year’s Jewish Film Fes­ti­val be­gins with the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of the gang whose no­to­ri­ous heist in Com­mu­nist Ro­ma­nia is still a source of con­tro­versy

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - BRIGIT GRANT

LIFE IM­I­TAT­ING art im­i­tat­ing life may be a cul­tural cliché but, when it comes to Nae Caran­fil’s Closer to the Moon, it re­ally does the job. Se­lected to open the 19th UK Jewish Film Fes­ti­val on Novem­ber 8, Closer to the Moon is a fic­tional retelling of a bank heist in Ro­ma­nia in 1959 by the Ioanid Gang, a group of six Jewish in­tel­lec­tu­als (five men and one woman) who were later caught and sen­tenced to death. Though the sub­ject such as it is, sug­gests a bleak 112 min­utes, Caran­fil — one of Ro­ma­nia’s most ac­claimed di­rec­tors — chose to give it a comedic, al­most bur­lesque treat­ment, which is great for the au­di­ence, but caused him more than a few prob­lems back home.

“There are peo­ple, mostly Ro­ma­ni­ans who ob­ject to the tone of the film as they feel I have no right to speak or por­tray Com­mu­nists in such light colours,” says Bucharest-born Nae, 54. “They claim that they lived through those dread­ful years and I should have a moral obli­ga­tion, to treat them in a dark tone. But I lived through those years, too, and though I was young I had fun de­spite the aw­ful­ness of the regime and this is my way of telling sto­ries.”

The story of the Ioanid Gang came to Caran­fil’s at­ten­tion 10 years ago when a friend was mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary on the sub­ject. Caran­fil was im­me­di­ately fas­ci­nated by the group, which in­cluded Alexandru Ioanid who was a colonel in the Se­cu­ri­tate (se­cret po­lice), his brother Paul and friends Igor Se­vianu, Saşa Muşat Har­alam­bie Obe­deanu and Mon­ica Se­vianu, who were re­spec­tively jour­nal­ists, a his­tory pro­fes­sor and a physi­cist.

Al­leged to have stolen 1,600,000 Ro­ma­nian lei (£200,000) from an ar­moured Na­tional Bank of Ro­ma­nia car, the gang were caught quickly, tried be­hind closed doors and all but one ex­e­cuted, un­be­known to many of their rel­a­tives. Only Mon­ica Se­vianu was par­doned, as she was preg­nant and, on re­lease from pri­son, she made aliyah.

But there is much more be­yond the heist which trig­gered Caran­fil’s imag­i­na­tion. As­ton­ish­ingly, be­fore the gang mem­bers were ex­e­cuted, they were or­dered by the gov­ern­ment to recre­ate their al­leged crime and play the roles in a film — Recon

sti­tuirea — which would later be used as pro­pa­ganda by the Com­mu­nist party. That film is kept in the Na­tional Ar­chives of Ro­ma­nia and Caran­fil runs it along­side the clos­ing cred­its for Closer to the Moon.

De­spite the ex­is­tence of this ma­te­rial, “there is much con­jec­ture and con­tro­versy about whether the heist ac­tu­ally hap­pened,” says the di­rec­tor, who is the son of Ro­ma­nian Jewish film critic Tu­dor Caran­fil. “There was never any ex­pla­na­tion for why they did what they did as they never pro­vided an­swers — or at least none that were made pub­lic. Be­cause of that,

This is my way of try­ing to ex­pose that aw­ful regime

there were many the­o­ries at the time about mo­tives — or lack of them — with some believ­ing the gov­ern­ment framed them to get rid of the last few Jews in of­fice and oth­ers in­sist­ing that they took the money to give to Zion­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions in or­der to trans­port Ro­ma­nian Jews to Is­rael.

“But, as the stolen money was in lei, which at the time could not be ex­changed any­where in the world this was un­likely. And they were in­tel­li­gent peo­ple and knew that strict con­trol and sur­veil­lance were en­forced in all ar­eas of so­ci­ety, which would have made their plan very dif­fi­cult to carry out.”

All of th­ese an­gles, along with Caran­fil’s own pow­er­ful hy­poth­e­sis about the rea­son for the crime, are con­tained in this very un­usual film which took months to write — “and re­write” — and stars Mark Strong, Vera Farmiga and sev­eral other Bri­tish ac­tors much to the an­noy­ance of film purists in Ro­ma­nia.

“They saw it as be­trayal to do it in English and with­out Ro­ma­nian ac­tors,” sighs Caran­fil. “But to do it the way I wanted was im­pos­si­ble to fi­nance with­out an Amer­i­can pro­ducer and so it had to be in English.

Caran­fil is hon­oured to be part of the Jewish Film Fes­ti­val — “it’s a priv­i­lege” — and at a time when there is so much va­ri­ety in Jewish cin­ema with

It’s still a mys­tery as to why they re­ally robbed the bank

more than 80 pro­duc­tions com­ing from 15 dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

A glance at the screen­ing sched­ule re­veals the range of themes ex­plored within the fes­ti­val, in­clud­ing the fea­tures Septem­bers of Shi­raz star­ring Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek in an adap­ta­tion of Dalia Sofer’s novel about a Jewish man ac­cused of be­ing an Is­raeli spy dur­ing the 1979 Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion. Doc­u­men­taries also play a prom­i­nent role and My Nazi Legacy by Jewish di­rec­tor David Evans is one to note — it takes renowned hu­man­rights bar­ris­ter Philippe Sands QC on a road-trip with two sons of SS of­fi­cers in the Ukraine.

“To be part of such a se­lec­tion is thrilling,” agrees Nae who be­lieved he was too old to get to get a shot at the Hol­ly­wood dream. “Mak­ing an English-lan­guage film with an in­ter­na­tional cast was not on the hori­zon and even though I pre­ferred Hol­ly­wood out­put in the 1970s, it’s still good to be closer to the ac­tion.”

Closer to the Moon has also proved to be an ed­u­ca­tion for Caran­fil’s coun­try­men, who knew lit­tle or noth­ing of the story.

“I count my­self within that group, as very few knew about this story. We were also un­aware of Com­mu­nist per­se­cu­tion of the Jews,” says Nae who has had min­i­mal Jewish ed­u­ca­tion as his fa­ther, now 84, is non­prac­tis­ing.

“We learnt about Nazi per­se­cu­tion at school, but the Com­mu­nists were never dis­cussed, though it was of course no sur­prise to dis­cover this as they per­se­cuted ev­ery­one. The sad para­dox for the Jews, how­ever, is that they had Stalin’s regime against them be­fore the war, then the Nazis and, af­ter, the Com­mu­nists again. It is tire­less and tragic.”

Though there is a small Jewish com­mu­nity in Ro­ma­nia, Nae has no rea­son to be­lieve that they have seen his film as their ‘‘of­fi­cial’’ as­so­ci­a­tion has yet to re­quest a screen­ing. Nae would hap­pily of­fer them the op­por­tu­nity as he has done his re­search on the Jewish tra­di­tions he was never taught and he is now an ex­pert on the heist. “I am per­son- ally in no doubt that the heist hap­pened,” he re­veals. “For one thing, I met Mon­ica Se­vianu’s grand­daugh­ter when she came to Ro­ma­nia to make her own doc­u­men­tary and she is well-in­formed.

“I also know who was driv­ing the bank’s ar­moured car on the day of the heist and he was ques­tioned and sub­jected to tor­ture by the

Sec­re­tar­iat .” And the driver? “The fa­ther of Ro­ma­nian ten­nis player Ilie Nas­tase,” says Nae, who clearly knows how to work that old adage about life and art .

Very few knew of the way peo­ple were treated

Dar­ing: The cast of Closer To The Moon

‘Hon­oured’: Di­rec­tor Nae Caran­fil

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.