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Won't You Be My Neighbor?

By Suzanne Koven

The title of Malik Chabane's film Voisins Voisines (retitled "Neighbors" in English) can be translated literally as "Male Neighbors Female Neighbors." Though awkward, this title is in keeping with the theme of the film, which is duality: Man and woman, Jew and Muslim, immigrant and native-born French, all crowded together and yet each isolated by his or her own private yearnings. Though at first Voisins Vosines seems modest in scope, with a small cast of quirky characters whose sparse dialogue is punctuated by a mesmerizing staccato rap beat, it is actually quite ambitious; it takes on no less a question than how human beings can go beyond merely co-existing with one another.

The film is set in a seedy apartment building on the outskirts of Paris and includes a pastiche of stories about its residents. The Macers (Nora Armani and Hakim Sarahoui), an interfaith couple who occupy one of the apartments in the "Mozart Flats," best represent the theme of duality. One senses that the Muslim husband and Jewish wife have not so much an interfaith marriage as a co-faith merger. Everything between them is equal… and separate. She wears a Jewish star around her neck; he wears a Hamsa. She drinks Coke out of a bottle with a Hebrew label; his label is Arabic. She observes Shabbat; he observes Ramadan. They lead reasonably harmonious yet parallel lives.

In Voisins Voisines (called "Neighbors" in English), Moussa Diop (Insa), an African-born rap artist, shakes up the frosty peace in a Paris apartment building by literally breaking down one resident's door. Photo courtesy Family Films, Paris

Their neighbors, we learn, are similarly at peace and yet disengaged from one another. Like the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War (which comes up in Voisins Voisines when Paco, the building's superintendent, notices books on the topic on a tenant's shelf), Chabane is saying that we attempt to maintain our peace and security by keeping our distance from one another.

Into this tense and unsatisfying situation enters Moussa Diop (Insa), an African-born rap artist who moves into the Mozart Flats and begins composing songs about its residents. He, like we, see the tenants' secret longings: Paco (Frédéric Diefenthal) wants to move beyond his hoodlum past. Mme. Gonzales (Anémone) wants to pay off the mortgage on the building while her husband (Jackie Berroyer) longs for a position in the mayor's office. Monsieur Malouf (Mohamed Fellag) tries in vain to purchase a Muslim cemetery plot, and elderly Mme. Pattison (Sarah Maldoror) hopes to find something other than bills and junk in her mailbox. Moussa, who himself yearns to be more than a teen idol, decides to shake things up, to literally break down the walls between his new neighbors. He knocks down the beautiful but lonely Alice's (Gwendoline Hamon) door and then sits back to watch what happens: The tenants get together to discuss how to prevent further "crimes" in the building and install a video surveillance system which serves to expose Alice and Monsieur Macer's affair.

"You can't leave me after all we've been though," cries Monsieur Macer to his wife in one of the film's funniest scenes. "Your parents, my parents. The rabbi, the imam… " To which Madame Macer replies "I know. The Gulf War, the Intifadas… what else?" Along with the husband's infidelity, Moussa's mischief has revealed the absurdity of the Macers' version of intermarriage in which every aspect has been labeled "His" (Muslim) or "Hers" (Jewish) with scrupulous fairness and utter sterility. After this exposure the marriage appears to become stronger, until another infidelity ("Hers") occurs--though it does not seem at all unlikely that the couple will again reunite.

Even the married couples in Voisins Voisines maintain a polite distance from each other. Photo courtesy Family Films, Paris

At its conclusion, Voisin Voisines offers an original and unsentimental vision of a messy utopia in which the aromas of kefta, paella, mafe and Pakistani grilled corn mingle in the hallways; a utopia in which barriers between people erode and neighbors begin to interact, risk conflict, share their dreams. This vision may be read as both a message to intermarried couples and to the French immigrant communities in such turmoil during the making of this film: Engage your differences. Risk vulnerability Break down the walls.

Voisins Voisines will be shown at the Museum of Fine arts in Boston on June 19 and 22, 2007, as a co-presentation of the Boston Jewish Film Festival and the French Consulate. For more information visit . Look for it at a Jewish film festival near you.

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices medicine and lives with her Italian-American Jewish family in the Boston area. Her website is

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