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Rebels with a cause

This year's Jewish Film Festival begins with the story of a notorious heist in Romania

    Life imitating art imitating life may be a cultural cliché but, when it comes to Nae Caranfil's Closer to the Moon, it really does the job. Selected to open the 19th UK Jewish Film Festival on November 8, Closer to the Moon is a fictional retelling of a bank heist in Romania in 1959 by the Ioanid Gang, a group of six Jewish intellectuals (five men and one woman) who were later caught and sentenced to death. Though the subject such as it is, suggests a bleak 112 minutes, Caranfil - one of Romania's most acclaimed directors - chose to give it a comedic, almost burlesque treatment, which is great for the audience, but caused him more than a few problems back home.

    "There are people, mostly Romanians who object to the tone of the film as they feel I have no right to speak or portray Communists in such light colours," says Bucharest-born Nae, 54. "They claim that they lived through those dreadful years and I should have a moral obligation, to treat them in a dark tone. But I lived through those years, too, and though I was young I had fun despite the awfulness of the regime and this is my way of telling stories."

    The story of the Ioanid Gang came to Caranfil's attention 10 years ago when a friend was making a documentary on the subject. Caranfil was immediately fascinated by the group, which included Alexandru Ioanid who was a colonel in the Securitate (secret police), his brother Paul and friends Igor Sevianu, Saşa Muşat Haralambie Obedeanu and Monica Sevianu, who were respectively journalists, a history professor and a physicist.

    Alleged to have stolen 1,600,000 Romanian lei (£200,000) from an armoured National Bank of Romania car, the gang were caught quickly, tried behind closed doors and all but one executed, unbeknown to many of their relatives. Only Monica Sevianu was pardoned, as she was pregnant and, on release from prison, she made aliyah.

    But there is much more beyond the heist which triggered Caranfil's imagination. Astonishingly, before the gang members were executed, they were ordered by the government to recreate their alleged crime and play the roles in a film - Reconstituirea - which would later be used as propaganda by the Communist party. That film is kept in the National Archives of Romania and Caranfil runs it alongside the closing credits for Closer to the Moon.

    Daring: The cast of Closer To The Moon
    Daring: The cast of Closer To The Moon

    Despite the existence of this material, "there is much conjecture and controversy about whether the heist actually happened," says the director, who is the son of Romanian Jewish film critic Tudor Caranfil. "There was never any explanation for why they did what they did as they never provided answers - or at least none that were made public. Because of that, there were many theories at the time about motives - or lack of them - with some believing the government framed them to get rid of the last few Jews in office and others insisting that they took the money to give to Zionist organisations in order to transport Romanian Jews to Israel.

    "But, as the stolen money was in lei, which at the time could not be exchanged anywhere in the world this was unlikely. And they were intelligent people and knew that strict control and surveillance were enforced in all areas of society, which would have made their plan very difficult to carry out."

    All of these angles, along with Caranfil's own powerful hypothesis about the reason for the crime, are contained in this very unusual film which took months to write - "and rewrite" - and stars Mark Strong, Vera Farmiga and several other British actors much to the annoyance of film purists in Romania.

    "They saw it as betrayal to do it in English and without Romanian actors," sighs Caranfil. "But to do it the way I wanted was impossible to finance without an American producer and so it had to be in English.

    Caranfil is honoured to be part of the Jewish Film Festival - "it's a privilege" - and at a time when there is so much variety in Jewish cinema with more than 80 productions coming from 15 different countries.

    A glance at the screening schedule reveals the range of themes explored within the festival, including the features Septembers of Shiraz starring Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek in an adaptation of Dalia Sofer's novel about a Jewish man accused of being an Israeli spy during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Documentaries also play a prominent role and My Nazi Legacy by Jewish director David Evans is one to note - it takes renowned human-rights barrister Philippe Sands QC on a road-trip with two sons of SS officers in the Ukraine.

    "To be part of such a selection is thrilling," agrees Nae who believed he was too old to get to get a shot at the Hollywood dream. "Making an English-language film with an international cast was not on the horizon and even though I preferred Hollywood output in the 1970s, it's still good to be closer to the action."

    Closer to the Moon has also proved to be an education for Caranfil's countrymen, who knew little or nothing of the story.

    "I count myself within that group, as very few knew about this story. We were also unaware of Communist persecution of the Jews," says Nae who has had minimal Jewish education as his father, now 84, is non-practising.

    "We learnt about Nazi persecution at school, but the Communists were never discussed, though it was of course no surprise to discover this as they persecuted everyone. The sad paradox for the Jews, however, is that they had Stalin's regime against them before the war, then the Nazis and, after, the Communists again. It is tireless and tragic."

    Though there is a small Jewish community in Romania, Nae has no reason to believe that they have seen his film as their ''official'' association has yet to request a screening. Nae would happily offer them the opportunity as he has done his research on the Jewish traditions he was never taught and he is now an expert on the heist. "I am personally in no doubt that the heist happened," he reveals. "For one thing, I met Monica Sevianu's granddaughter when she came to Romania to make her own documentary and she is well-informed.

    "I also know who was driving the bank's armoured car on the day of the heist and he was questioned and subjected to torture by the Secretariat ."

    And the driver? "The father of Romanian tennis player Ilie Nastase," says Nae, who clearly knows how to work that old adage about life and art.

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