Sami Shalom Chetrit: A life of reflection and action, literary production for social change

An interview conducted by Abhijit Ganguly.  First published on his blog called

Prof. Sami Shalom Chetrit  is a teacher, poet, writer and filmmaker. He was born in Morocco, raised in Israel and have lived there since. He also lived in New York City for many years where he studied (Columbia university) and taught at CUNY. He has been writing and publishing poetry for thirty years. Chetrit was a leading social activist in Israel for many years. He was among the founders of the alternative school Kedma in the southern neighborhood HaTikva in Tel Aviv. Chetrit has also produced and directed three documentary films-  “The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak”, Az’i Ayima (Come Mother), and recently  “Shattered Rhymes: the Life and poetry of Erez Bitton”. Recently, Prof. Sami Shalom Chetrit and Rani Blair representatives of Israel’s largest public educational institution, Sapir College, hold a series of lectures, workshops and presentations organised by The Embassy of Isarel in India, Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute & Culture Monks.

You were born in Morocco, raised in Israel. How do you feel your early childhood experiences and memories play into your work?

My childhood played a significant role in my life as an artist. It was a childhood of immigrants family and community into a country that we considered the promised land, but we found much hostility from our European Jewish brothers whom we followed to the land. My culture and identity which at home we celebrated and were proud of, was considered backward and was therefore absent from the classroom and textbooks. We were erased. I grew up wanting to become European, which was complicating my identity. Much later in my early twenties I’ve learned to embrace my history and culture and became an activist for that cause.

What inspired you to do The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak? If you could let our readers know  the issues which are unique to the Mizrahi Jews?

As a child I was watching the reports about the black panthers demonstrations in our family living room, and my father will be commenting saying things like: “they are so courageous! I salute them.”  Then later that year of 1971 he himself organized a demonstration in our town Ashdod for the improvement of our community living conditions. Those pictures stayed with me for long. Much later as a student in Jerusalem — the hometown of the panthers — I’ve learned them from close. Visited them and started writing about them. So the film came as I was writing the chapter about the panthers in my PHD dissertation and my friend Eli Hamo, a filmmaker and an activist told me after listening to recorded interviews I made with the panthers, that this should be a documentary that will reach thousands around the world, while a dissertation will remain a reader for few. I finished my dissertation and it came out as a book in Hebrew, Arabic and English. And of course with Eli we made the film that have reached thousands around the world and Israel. My friend Eli past away six years ago and every screening of the panthers since is dedicated to him.

Do you believe Mizrahi Jews  can act as a bridge, forging a path of peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis?

Yes I believe so.  But my generation had better chance to do so. The young generation is now ultra patriotic and is distant from the culture and mentality of mizrahim in their communities in the Aran and Muslim homelands. Of course the European hegemony has been discouraging mizrahim from being such bridge, by recruiting them to serve in intelligence, shin beit, mosad and anti-Arab special unites, abusing their Arab looks and Arabic language. Now openly the leaders of Israel incite the young mizrahim against the Palestinians using methods of politics of fear. So it’s possible for mizrahim to build a bridge but becoming more and more difficult.

As an artist in both worlds, how do cinema and poetry compare to each other?

That’s a question I ask myself from time to time when I have a good story: should I write a poem or a story, or should I make a documentary? The qualities of a poem and a story are known to us for thousands of years. They prove to be stable and effective. Yet, the temptation to tell it all on screen so direct and creative in one hour reaching thousands of people is always there. I do both. Like the example of the black panthers. Or the film about the poet Erez Bitton.

What would be your advice to  future generations of filmmakers who want to engage with what’s happening in the world?

In our interviews of new candidates for the film and television school, we ask the candidate to tell us about the latest in the news as he or she read in the papers or watched on TV or heard on the radio. We want to see that they are engaged in what’s going on around them in the world, in country in their community. That is the context we are making art within. Also I always recommend New comers and graduates to stay away from cynicism. It’s a poison for every artist to be aware of. And don’t confuse that with irony. Irony comes with a smile, an insight, I little laughter. So my advice be engaged in your community, inform yourself, and safeguard your innocence. We need innocence to tell a fresh story.


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