‘The Film Class” could be the most important small film that almost nobody will ever see.
Set in the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Israeli Negev, the film, which was shown earlier this month at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and at The Other Israel Film Festival in New York, follows Israeli filmmaker Uri Rosenwaks as he teaches a small group of Bedouin women the rudiments of documentary making: how to load film, how to operate a camera, how to interview. It all seems as ordinary as linoleum, except for one thing: The Bedouin women enrolled in this class are all black, as in black African. We know that the Bedouin are the original nomadic inhabitants of the Middle East’s deserts, prototypical Arabs. Who, then, are these black Bedouin?
Apparently, the women themselves hardly know. They have only hazy notions of their ancestors — extremely strange, since Bedouin customarily know their lineages down to the 20th generation. But as novice filmmakers, the women begin asking questions and following stories, and the stories that engage them most are those about their own lives and history. They interview a young black man who fears for his life because he and a white Bedouin girl fell in love. A little girl tells the women she feels hurt because white children call her krembo, the local variety of the n-word. Then we learn that the white Bedouin typically refer to the black Bedouin as abed — slave.
A black Bedouin interviewee says, “They [Arabs] would steal them [her ancestors] from Sudan.” An old white Bedouin says, “They were all bought, all branded.” An old black Bedouin says that slave-catchers “used to roam the countryside,” kidnapping children.
The pre-credit opening shots are of the slave pits in Zanzibar. Later the women are shown contemporary drawings of Arab slave markets and slave caravans, with lines of black Africans chained together by the neck or yoked like animals. The women are shocked to think that the pictures might be of their ancestors, that their great-grandparents might have been kept in those pits. In its tiny, unassuming way, “The Film Class” opens up one of the greatest and most enduring tragedies in human history, one that is, incredibly, hardly known in the West at all: the slave trade of the Muslim and Arab world.
Westerners, Americans especially, tend to think that the Atlantic trade, with the horrors of the Middle Passage and the industrialized chattel slavery of the plantations, was in some sense unique and uniquely evil. Most of us are ignorant of the vast appetite for slaves in North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East that lasted for 1,300 years and swallowed untold millions from the great sub-Saharan slave pools of Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad and the Congo. We do not know about the great Zanj slave rebellion of the ninth century that killed hundreds of thousands and all but swallowed the Baghdad caliphate — by far the greatest slave revolt in history. We don’t know about the dreaded Forty Day Road and other equally horrifying caravan routes across the Sahara, littered with centuries worth of slave bones. Or about the 2,000-mile sea voyages from Lamu to the Red Sea in dhows packed as tightly with human cargo as were the slaving ships that crossed the Atlantic. We can hardly encompass with our imaginations the atrociousness of the eunuch trade, in which perhaps one in 10 or one in 20 of the children who were castrated survived the operation.
In part we don’t know these things because our sense of guilt has focused us on our own slaving history and because our historians have had rich troves of Western slave-related documents to draw on. In the Muslim world, neither the same kind of guilt nor equivalent documents has ever existed. Finally, the United States and other Western former slave-holding societies are home to a black African diaspora hungry to find its roots and trace its historical experience. In the Muslim world, for its own interesting reasons, no parallel diaspora has persisted. “The Film Class” shows us a tiny, anomalous, though not unique, diaspora community. In so doing, it opens a truly prodigious Pandora’s box whose existence most Westerners never suspected.
To learn more about “The Film Class,” visit the Web site of distributor Ruth Diskin, www.ruthfilms.com
David Chanoff is a freelance writer whose 13 books include several on the Vietnam War and the Holocaust.