Simone Bitton, a Paris-based, French-Moroccan director whose work has primarily concentrated on the history and cultures of North Africa and the Middle East, made her debut in the Masters section at IDFA—arguably the most prestigious of the documentary festival’s strands—with the world premiere of “Ziyara.” The film also screens in the International Panorama section of the Cairo Film Festival, which runs Dec. 2-10.
Bitton herself has mixed feelings about the IDFA accolade, as she makes quite clear. “I don’t consider myself a master,” she says. “I know that I have some kind of experience and maybe my experience is a little particular, but to be a master, I’m not sure I like it. It puts you in a category, it labels you: ‘That’s it—that’s what she’s doing’—and I hope to do more films and maybe different films. Nonetheless, I take it as an honor.”
For her latest film, Bitton returned to her homeland, where “ziyara”—or “the visit of the saints—is a popular tradition shared by both Jews and Muslims. Pilgrims spend a few days visiting the tombs of saints to pray and commune with nature, celebrate outdoors, meet new people and exchange ideas, and Bitton uses this as a way to understand the nation’s Jewish heritage. In the 1950s, some 300,000 Jews lived in Morocco, although most, including Bitton’s family, left the country after the Six-Day War in 1967. Their presence can still be felt in cemeteries, synagogues and shrines, however, and so Bitton travels to these places, interviewing those who reminisce about the 50s, as well as young people and scholars who are inspired by these untold stories.
In many ways, it’s a very personal journey for Bitton. “I go to the very place where all of me started,” she says. “Morocco is the place where I was born, where my family name is all over tombs—it’s a very common Jewish name in Morocco—and it’s powerful when you discover this history. I left Morocco when I was 11, and I started coming back about 15 years later, visiting more often, with the growing feeling that I’m becoming more myself by going back.”
However, the film itself is not a personal journey into her family’s history: she mentions her relatives in passing, and even though Bitton uses images from her private family photo album, including pictures of her mother and father, she doesn’t dwell on them. For Bitton, it’s the broader story—one that can be gleaned from looking at these old symbols, visiting the religious sites, and investigating this past—that is of interest. “Moroccan Jews and Arab Jews in general, we are like dinosaurs,” she says. “We are like a disappearing species. After one generation, there will be no more of us. There are already very few of us who define ourselves as Arab Jews. We are scattered, we became British, French, Israelis, whatever. The children no longer talk Arabic, it was an exodus, and it went very, very fast.”
The idea to make “Ziyara” came when Bitton started to visit Jewish cemeteries and shrines in Morocco. “What happened was, [after] meeting these modest, humble Muslim families who are taking care of these places, first of all, my dialect came back. I thought I had forgotten everything. In Morocco, I was recognized for what I am, and it was a very strong feeling. When it happened, I thought, ‘I must make a film with these people.’”
As she has done throughout her illustrious career, Bitton brings an inimitable and thought-provoking new perspective to the complexities of the Arab world. “I was interested in the trauma of the Muslims who have been deprived of their Jewish neighbors and Jewish friends,” she says. “I think that the Moroccan society and all the Arab societies are still traumatized by having lost their Jews. This is not said very often, but I think it’s time to address it—before it’s too late.”