’24 Days’: Because He Was Jewish

“24 Days: The True Story of the Ilan Halimi Affair” is not an easy film to watch. Based on a memoir written by the victim’s mother, the movie chronicles in excruciating detail the 24 days in 2006 between the abduction, torture and death of a 23-year-old Parisian Jewish cell phone salesman by a group of African and North African immigrants known aptly as the “Gang of Barbarians.” More shocking and disturbing than the physical violence, most of which occurs off camera, is the refusal of the French authorities to even entertain the possibility that Ilan was kidnapped solely because he was Jewish. 

The film opens with Ilan’s mother, Ruth (the superb Zabou Breitman), unflinchingly addressing the audience. “If my son hadn’t been Jewish, he wouldn’t be dead. It happened to me and my family, but it could have happened to others,” she says, leaving no doubt as to Ilan’s fate. Nonetheless, Director Alexandre Arcady skillfully manages to maintain a level of suspense and hope for the next 110 minutes as the events chronologically unfold, no easy cinematic feat.

The story is horrifying. Under the leadership of the savage Youssouf Fofana (a terrifying Tony Harrisson), a gang of multi-racial thugs operates out of a suburban public housing complex, plotting the kidnapping and ransoming of Jews under the theory that Jews are rich and the Jewish community would unite to rescue one of its own. In Ilan’s case, the bait is a sexy leather-clad girl who walks into his store, flirts with him and asks for his phone number. Later that night, she calls, asking him to meet her in a caf. While walking to her apartment, a gang ambushes Ilan and throws him into the back of a van. The girl was paid 5,000 euros.

24 days 2
Fofana (Tony Harisson), leader of the “Gang of Barbarians,” made nearly 700 calls with ransom demands, insults, threats and photos.

When the Halimis receive a ransom demand for more money than they could possibly raise, they go to the police. (Arcady filmed all these scenes in the actual 36th Precinct Police Headquarters, the first
time a film crew received permission to shoot in that building.) The detective in charge of the case enlists a psychologist who specializes in negotiation. The two peg Ilan’s father, Didier (an understated Pascal Elb), as the more cooperative parent and enlist his help in negotiating for his son. He alone will have direct contact with the blackmailers, but the authorities will be calling the shots.

For the next three weeks, he and his ex-wife Ruth field over 650 vile and abusive phone calls, many of them anti-Semitic rants. Despite Ruth’s gut recognition that this is an anti-Semitic crime that does not fit into the government’s cookie-cutter approach, the police stubbornly stick to their conception of the case. Their failure leads to the sad, but predictable, result.

The film’s focus seamlessly shifts from police activity to the Bagneux ghetto where Ilan is held. In scenes eerily reminiscent of the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder (where 38 people heard her cries for help and did nothing), the kidnappers act in broad daylight in clear sight of the hundreds of onlookers who go about their business as if nothing is amiss.

Director Arcady said in a press release that after reading the line, “I would like Ilan’s death to serve as an alert” in Ruth Halimi’s memoir, he knew he was meant to make “24 Days” to bear witness to the martyring of her son, the first young Jew to be killed in France simply because he was a Jew since the Holocaust.

“We return to the old schemas we thought disappeared with the Nazis and the final solution. All the elements were there: a Jew, who is locked away and starved and tortured, before having his head shaved, being disinfected, and thrown into a forest with passing trains, who is later burned… All the themes of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust were reproduced during the abduction and assassination of young Ilan Halimi,” he said.

The epilogue provides the film’s one bright moment. After Ruth went public on a radio broadcast, the case sparked a national outcry against anti-Semitism and forced the government to treat it as the hate crime it was. Of the 29 suspects brought to court as implicated in the crime, 19 are serving prison sentences, including Fofana whose life sentence is without possibility of parole for 22 years.

Pictured at top: Ilan Halimi (Syrus Shahidi) kisses his mother Ruth (Zabou Breitman) for the last time. Menemsha Films

In Their Own Words

Every summer, hundreds of American teenagers travel to Israel under the auspices of programs such as the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel. Y2I, a “rite de passage” for many North Shore Jewish teens, is intended as a life-changing Israel experience. 2014’s trip was uniquely so.

As their plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, news broke that the fate of three kidnapped boys was clear: their murdered bodies had been found. Within days, Hamas rockets sequestered the Y2I group in northern Israel, precluding visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Masada. It was simply unsafe to proceed with the trip “as usual.”

The teens wrote post-trip essays about their experience and, with the permission of the Lappin Foundation, we share passages from many of them, joined together into a single voice.

“This trip taught me the true definition of being Jewish. It was not until I was actually in Israel, with the rockets and fighting, that I understood how strong we are. Israel is an amazing and resilient country and we were lucky enough to witness it firsthand.

The Israeli kids told me how important it was to just go through your day with a smile, and make the best of a dim situation. I will take that piece of advice with me and use it for the rest of my life. I never thought one trip could teach me such a big lesson.

What I admire most about Israel is her strength and heart. Israel and the Jewish people have always faced adversity. But even when times get tough, even when other people and other countries knock us down and try to belittle us or hurt us or say we are not good enough, we always get up.

I feel it is part of my responsibility to let people know about the real struggles in Israel, not the fake rumors. This is extremely important to me, and Y21 gave me the ability to understand it better.”

During this wrenching time for Israel and Jews everywhere, it is easy to get caught in the web of relentless media coverage, political polemics and sharp-tongued rhetoric. How fortunate we are that we can also tune into the voices of those with the most at stake: our children, who will live in a future we will not see.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on July 31, 2014.