Like a mythical phoenix rising from its ashes, the documentary “El Gusto” tells the story of an old Algerian orchestra reborn to a new life. The film, which was first released in 2012, was screened by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival before a warmly appreciative audience at the Ismaili Jamatkhana, an Islamic religious center in Norcross.
The documentary tells of the reunion and subsequent concert by an orchestra composed of Muslims and Jews that was popular during French colonial days in the 1940s and 1950s. The story of how the filmmaker managed to reunite the old orchestra and present it as the musicians played together once again is almost as fascinating as the joyous and inspired musicmaking on screen.
The creator of the film, Safinez Bousbia, who is from North Africa, spent years tracking down the old musicians, whom she first discovered in a faded photograph from the 1940s. All the Jewish musicians had fled the country. Some went to France. The Arab musicians also scattered, some to a quiet life in Algeria, others to anonymity elsewhere.
Bousbia brought them together once again to play Chaabi, or the inspired blend of Andalusian music from Spain, Berber melodies from North Africa and religious tunes of the common man of Tunisia, which had origins in the fabled casbah. Some of the musicians were in their 90s or older when film shooting began in 2006.
It took another six years of filming and editing and a battle with breast cancer that almost ended the filmmaker’s life before the production was ready for a final edit. Only a last-minute investment from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival allowed it to be completed. It was screened at the festival there, where it won the director a top prize.
Sadly, the old orchestra never was able to play in its native Algeria because of the dangers that the musicians, particularly the Jews, would have endured.
But the success of the film brought the old orchestra new life and a successful tour of America in 2013.
“El Gusto” was introduced by Sherry Frank, who as the executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta, helped start the AJFF almost 20 years ago.
“One of the strong dreams we had in starting the festival” she pointed out, “was the opportunity to build bridges. It is so gratifying to be able to come and say thank you for joining with us in building community and sharing the power of film.”
This is the second year that the AJFF has brought Jews and Muslims together in a film showing of interest to both groups. It’s part of the year-round programs that the festival creates to reach diverse audiences, most recently in the AJFF mini festival on the campus of Emory University.
The afternoon was coordinated for the AJFF by Katherine Crosby, who is the film festival’s community programming manager.
“The arts are a great way for us to connect with each other,” she said, “and see the commonalities that we share through our stories.
According to Behnoosh Momin, a spokesperson for the center, the screening and the partnership with the AJFF is part of an effort the group has undertaken to create better understanding in an interfaith setting.
“We seek to learn how to see our differences in a new way,” Momin said. “Instead of viewing cultural diversity as a burden, we can use it as an opportunity to learn from one another and to appreciate one another.”
The Jamatkhana is a center for education and worship built by the Ismaili branch of Islam, a small but highly influential sect of Islam, which is led by the Aga Khan. The sect is considered among the most liberal and progressive branches of Islam in the modern world.
The afternoon concluded with a short concert of traditional Arab music by David Marcus.