WWII tests Tunisian womens bond in Wedding Song

French-Jewish writer-director Karin Albou assumed that the Algerian side of her family had been untouched by World War II. Then she came across letters that her grandfather, a doctor in the French Army, had written to her grandmother from a German POW camp.

He was held for four years, Albou’s grandmother explained, protected by his French citizenship at the very same time the Vichy regime was stripping Algerian Jews of theirs.

“I learned all this when I was 20,” Albou recalls, “and I was shocked that the Second World War [affected] the former French colonies of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and that the French government can decide … that Jews are not French anymore.”

The plight of European Jews during the war was taught in French schools, but Albou had to do her own research to discover that the Nazis occupied Tunisia for six months.

That historical reality provides the background of her second film, “The Wedding Song,” as well as the external pressure that threatens to destroy the lifelong friendship between two Jewish and Muslim teenagers. An artful, evocative story of women navigating dangerous times, “The Wedding Song” closed the S.F. portion of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July and opens Friday, Oct. 9, at the Sundance Kabuki.

A scene from “The Wedding Song,” a story about female friendship during difficult times in North Africa.

“I didn’t want to make a political film, and that’s why I portrayed this friendship in a period film,” Albou related over coffee at her hotel during her late-July visit. “If I would have made this same story with Palestinians and Israelis, it would have been very complicated because there’s no distance.

“I didn’t want to make a political movie, but I understand through many people’s reaction that the film is still political,” she says with one of her frequent laughs.

Albou is referring to the reviews and post-screening Q&As after “The Wedding Song” opened in France last December. In particular, she drew criticism from some corners for the film’s opening montage of archival newsreel footage, including a picture of Hitler with the smiling Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

“Some French people were upset, not the Arabs,” Albou explains. “Some French people are more pro-Arab than the Arabs themselves. They said, ‘You did a Zionist movie’ and stuff like that. An Arab man stood up [at one screening] and said, ‘No, she did the right thing. We have to talk about that. As an Arab, I think it’s very important to show these pictures.’

“It’s interesting that it’s French people, not the Arab people, that were shocked or embarrassed by these photos. They don’t want to know that it happened.”

There’s a scene in “The Wedding Song” of the occupying Germans dropping anti-Jewish leaflets on Tunis. The implication is that by raising the specter of anti-Semitism, the Nazis instigate the tension between Muslims and Jews.

“In any culture, you can have dark sides that are buried because people live together,” Albou says. “As soon as propaganda comes and says this one is the bad guy, all the inner dark side rises up. I think there was some anti-Semitism in France, too, but very underneath. You can have tension, but the war suddenly makes everything on fire.”

Albou didn’t set out to construct a parable about current Arab-Jewish relations, but to tell a story about female friendship during a time in North Africa that had never been depicted onscreen. It’s difficult not to consider the film’s contemporary resonance, though.

“In France we don’t really have problems living together,” she relates. “When there’s a conflict in Israel, there’s an invisible border and then one is pro-Palestinian and one is pro-Israeli and this is the crack. It’s like in the movie: The [girls] are together and suddenly the war shows up and they are put on completely different sides in spite of themselves. They don’t understand what’s happening to them.”

Albou is married to an Israeli and divides her time between Tel Aviv and Paris. She works in France, though one wonders if she might be working on a screenplay set in Israel.

“For the moment, no, but I would love one day to make an Israeli movie, and to make an American movie in Los Angeles,” she says, with another laugh.

“The Wedding Song” plays for one week starting Friday, Oct. 9 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco; Oct. 19-22 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael; and 5:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose as part of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.