Hate, humanity are seen through child’s eyes in ‘Neighbours’



Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

There are always a number of Israeli films or films of Jewish interest in the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, and the same is true for this year’s 30th annual edition. SLIFF begins Nov. 4 and runs through Nov. 21, with a combination of in-person and virtual screenings and special events.

One of this year’s best Jewish-interest films is “Neighbours”  (“Nachbarn”), a Swiss film set in Syria 40 years ago, in a small village where Kurdish and Jewish families are neighbors. Actually, at this point, there is only one Jewish family left in the village, a change due to the increasingly hostile policies of the ruling Baathist party. 

This child-centric tale from Kurdish-Swiss director Mano Khalil contains a lot of sly satire and humor. Partly based on the director’s bittersweet memories of his childhood, he captures the joys and heartbreak of childhood and explores the absurdity of bigotry, antisemitism and conflict through the lens of those memories.

“Neighbours” begins with a framing device in the present. A Kurdish extended family who fled violence in Syria are living in a refugee camp and waiting to hear from someone they reached out to in Switzerland. The reply comes in the form of a picture and a request that the family patriarch Sero (Sherzad Abdullah) identify the people in it. It is not a photo, but a child’s drawing, a drawing that sparks childhood memories of 40 years ago.


In flashback, 7-year-old Sero is living in a small, mostly Kurdish village on the Turkish-Syrian border. Starting with the subject of the drawing, little Sero (Serhed Khalil) and his beloved Uncle Aram (Ismail Zagros) prank the Turkish border guards by releasing balloons in the Kurdish national colors. It is something sure to enrage the Turkish guards, but it’s otherwise a harmless thumbing of their noses at a border that divided Kurdish families, including theirs, and left them outsiders on either side of the border.

Uncle Aram is Sero’s father’s younger brother, a fun-loving, mischievous young man whom Sero adores. In their Kurdish village on the border, everyone knows everyone, and everyone gets along. The kids tear around the village playing, while the village elders watch and shake their heads.

Sero’s neighbors are a Jewish family, whom his family has known and been friendly with for years. Sero even helps them on the Sabbath by lighting the lamps and stove, something Aram used to do, too, when he was younger. There were once several Jewish families in the village, but they are now the only ones left, as others have fled. They, too, would like to leave, but now the Baathist government won’t recognize Jews as citizens or give them passports.

The village is waiting for the arrival of two things: electric power and a new teacher. The power lines have been in place for some time, and village homes have been wired for electricity, but power has yet to arrive. Sero particularly longs for electricity so he can watch cartoons like the kids in the city do, and he keeps pestering his parents for a TV.

Still, there is a great deal of humor and charm in this childhood world of play, although there is a serious side to this dramedy, and tragic events eventually strike. A lot of that charm comes from young Serhed Khalil as Sero, a sweet-faced boy full of mischief and playful joy. But all the cast bring warmth and appeal to their roles, particularly Zagros as Aram and Uygurlar Derya as Hannah, the daughter in the Jewish family. The Jewish parents would like to escape Syria and especially want to get their daughter out, but Hannah does not want to leave her home, and particularly her childhood friend Aram.

Meanwhile, the new teacher, Wahid Hanouf (Jalal Al Tawil), arrives, a rigid true believer in the Baath Party of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, whose ideology is a mix of communist and pan-Arab ideas without really being either, but with a big dose of antisemitism.

Hanouf thinks instilling these antisemitic ideas are as much his job as teaching reading and writing. One of the first things he does is insist that the children speak only Arabic in class and at home. Sero does not much like school anyway, but he is really at a loss when the teacher insists that everyone speak only Arabic, which he neither speaks nor understands, leaving him struggling to catch up. Sero doesn’t believe what the teacher says about his kindly neighbors, but other children buy in to the lies.

The teacher is the outsider who brings hate and antisemitism to the village and disrupts their quiet lives, along with a local man who is the village’s sole Baath Party member, a membership that gives him a house and a job despite his illiteracy. These two are the primary villains, but other representatives of the authoritarian government also bring either danger or a callous indifference and corruption.

The film has a powerful, satiric punch in its chilling depiction of how hatred is taught, as Hanouf indoctrinates his charges in antisemitic ideas that include the old “blood libel.” Sero’s parents, grandparents and kindly Jewish neighbors are the counterbalance to this, with their long friendship and willingness to help each other. 

“Neighbours” is a touching, warm human tale laced with humor and childhood appeal, and a pointed satiric look at the roots of hate in Syria.


Part of the St. Louis International Film Festival

WHEN: Two screenings: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9, and 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10.

WHERE: Tivoli Theater, 6350 Delmar Blvd.

HOW MUCH: Tickets for screenings, in-person or virtual, are $15, $11 for Cinema St. Louis members. Festival passes also available for purchase.

MORE INFO: Visit cinemastlouis.org/sliff/festival-home for more information or to purchase tickets. “Neighbours” runs 124 minutes and is in Kurdish, Arabic, English and Hebrew with English subtitles.SLIFF will require masks and proof of vaccination at in-person events.