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Friday, April 18, 2014

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Filmmaker to tell story of Ghanaian Jews

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Gabrielle Zilkha and Sefwi child, Rahel, look at a video she recorded on a flipcam.

Gabrielle Zilkha is hoping to bring a group of Ghanaian Jews to Israel for the first time as part of a new documentary called From the Four Corners of the Earth.

It all started two years ago when she was volunteering for a women’s rights organization in Ghana’s capital, Accra. As the High Holidays drew near, she realized she probably wouldn’t be able to celebrate them in a synagogue.

“The thought of finding a minyan of Jews to celebrate the High Holidays was quite unlikely,” said the 29-year-old Toronto-based filmmaker. The majority of the population is made up of Christians and Muslims, she explained.

However, her mother did some research and found a group of Ghanaian people called the Sefwis, who thought of themselves as a lost tribe of Israel.

“I had my doubts,” Zilkha said, explaining that she figured they were really Christian evangelicals or a group of “Jews for Jesus.” When she phoned them to find out about Rosh Hashanah services, she expected to reach an expat or a Christian group. Instead, she reached a Ghanaian.

“I knew they were probably real when he corrected me on the date and time of services for Rosh Hashanah,” she said, laughing. So she hopped on a “tro-tro” – a fixed-route shared minibus taxi that Zilkha described as a “Scooby-Doo bus” – and embarked on a nine-hour journey to Sefwi-Wiawso.

“As with most Jews, I was quite neurotic about travelling, and what to expect, and [about] the directions given to me,” she said, explaining that she relied heavily on directions from locals. “I’m used to Google Maps, so this was a real leap of faith.”

When she arrived, she was overwhelmed but touched at the warmth she felt in the group.

“I went from being nervous and stunned to supremely touched by the community’s hospitality,” she said.

There, she learned that the Sefwi had been practising Jewish traditions for centuries before learning that it was part of a bigger religion.

She met with a young community leader, Alex Armah, who said that although people have come into the town and written about them, no one who was actually part of the community ever took part in documenting their culture and history.

Zilkha, who has a background in filmmaking, decided this was something that needed to be fixed, and two years later, she’s working on that film with the Sefwi community.

She left for Ghana with field producer and director of photography John Canning to shoot the first part of the film, about the Sefwis’ history and culture.

The biggest challenge so far has been the funding, Zilkha said. So far, she has raised just enough to fund the first part of the film through creating a Kickstarter page. Kickstarter, a website that helps creative projects find funding through the public, worked well for this filmmaker. In just under a month, she raised almost $16,000 from 190 “backers,” or supporters.

Despite this accomplishment, they still have a long way to go. The second part of the film is likely going to be much more expensive. Zilkha hopes to bring a group of Sefwi community members to Israel for the first time.

“So many of them had mentioned this was a dream of theirs,” Zilkha said, explaining in her movie trailer that she wanted to see if they felt the deep connection she felt when visiting Israel for the first time.

The number of travellers would depend on the budget, but Zilkha said she hopes it will be an equal number of men and women from a wide age range. As of now, the community has selected eight people, with the youngest being 14 and the oldest around 60 years old.

She said the Sefwi’s isolation from other Jews might explain why they seem so incredibly dedicated to increasing their knowledge of the religion. Armah, who is working as the associate producer and production co-ordinator in Ghana, takes time every Shabbat to teach some of the community how to speak Hebrew. He learned the language in Uganda, where he studied at a yeshiva, Zilkha said.

In the future, he hopes to go to rabbinical school, though it would likely take a scholarship to make that dream feasible, she said.

Zilkha said she hopes the film will answer the questions Jews from around the world might have about these people.

“There’s a lot of interesting things that I wish I was able to capture when I was there,” she said. For example, she spent one Shabbat in their synagogue, where she spent 45 minutes helping to teach the proper pronunciation for the guttural “ch” sound, which many community members found challenging.

“It’s those special moments that show this community as so unique, and also this magic that arrives from the commonality,” she said.

Apart from the funding, there is one other major challenge: shooting a film when you don’t know the whole story.

“Right now, we know there’s a history, a present day, and the future is the visit to Israel,” she said. “We’re trying to organize the story to make way for this unknown so that you can eventually tell a coherent and beautiful story out of it.”

Zilkha said she hopes production will be done by the end of the year, and the film will be released sometime in 2014.

In the meantime, she’s working to draw interest and more funding through the Internet. She plans to have the Ghanaian travellers keep video diaries that will be published online so people can keep up-to-date about the journey while still in production.

“We like to share every little step with our supporters, to join us on this exciting journey,” Zilkha said.

For more information, visit the website fourcornersthefilm.com.

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