Kaddish For A Friend
Synopsis: Fourteen-year-old Ali lives with his family in Germany, having escaped the war in Palestine. With the conflict in their homeland barely a memory they harbour lingering resentment towards Jews. On a neighbourhood dare he raids the apartment of his neighbour, Alexander Zamskoy, but is spotted by the old man and reported to police. In order to avoid a conviction Ali must make amends to the man he has wronged, and an intense friendship develops.
A moving tale of reconciliation and forgiveness amidst an ancient conflict.
FESTIVAL OF GERMAN FILMS: Oh no, you may think judging by the synopsis, not another film that explores the relationship between a sour, cranky old man and an impressionable, confused youth.
Wrong: Kaddish for a Friend transcends that clichéd theme as the pivotal relationship crosses deep ethnic and religious divisions between Jews and Arabs.
The debut feature by Moscow-born German filmmaker Leo Khasin, it’s a poignant, dramatically charged and wryly funny film about tolerance, guilt, forgiveness and healing.
Inspired by a true story, the film stars Neil Belakhdar as Palestinian teenager Ali Messalam (he’s probably 15; his age is ambiguous) who migrated with his family to Germany from a refugee camp in the Lebanon. He’s a bright lad, scoring good grades at school, but has inherited a dislike and distrust of Jews from his bigoted father.
As the film opens, the family moves into a dingy apartment in a public housing block in Berlin’s working class Kreuzberg quarter. Living upstairs is Alexander Zamskoy (Ryszard Ronczewski), an elderly, feisty Russian Jew who has lived in Germany for 30 years.
Egged on by his cousin and several thuggish friends in the neighbourhood, Ali & Co. break into the old man’s apartment while he’s at a Jewish war veterans association meeting and vandalise the joint, including spray painting “Jew = Nazi” on one wall.
On his return Zamskoy catches sight of the fleeing Ali and informs the cops, who interrogate the lad and charge him with burglary and incitement to racial hatred.
Warned that his family could be deported if he’s convicted, Ali informs his mother, who’s pregnant. She elects not to tell her husband (Neil Malik Abdullah), an insensitive brute, but forces Ali to apologise to Alexander (“Alik” to his friends) and to offer to repair and repaint his apartment. The old chap initially is reluctant to accept either gesture but relents as he fears he may be forced by well-meaning social services officers to vacate his flat and move into an aged care home.
For a time their relationship bristles with resentment, suspicion and distrust. Ali assures the old man that trashing his flat was “nothing personal,” which prompts Alexander to ask in bewilderment, “What did the Jews do to you to make you think the way you do?” The boy replies, “Stole our land,” referring to Palestine.
A physical altercation between the pair marks a turning point but the fragile friendship is further tested when the boy fears he will be convicted and his family deported.
The performances by the two leads are entirely natural. In his second movie role following 2010’s We Are the Night , Belakhdar, a thin lad with a wispy moustache, is fully believable as a young man who learns to set aside ingrained prejudice. Ali’s exchanges with Alexander are sharply written and a confrontation with his father heightens the dramatic impact.
The Polish-born Ronczewski, who’s 81, deftly handles his character’s transformation and is especially touching in scenes when Alexander makes a regular pilgrimage to a cemetery where he tends his wife’s gravestone and speaks tenderly to her. Similarly moving is the old man’s grief over the loss of his son years ago. The actor also has fun with the lighter side of the character.
The Kaddish of the title, which refers to a Jewish prayer for the dead, is a potent symbol. Khasin keeps a firm rein on the material, never letting excessive sentimentality overwhelm the engrossing narrative.
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