Isaac Cherem, right, sets up a shot with actress, Naian Gonzalez Norwind, left, in his film "Leona" which opened at Scottsdale's Harkins Theatres Shea 14 on Feb. 12.

On Feb. 12, Isaac Cherem’s independent film “Leona” opened in select theatres across the United States, including Scottsdale’s Harkins Theatres Shea 14.

Cherem is a Mexican Jew of Syrian descent living in Mexico City. His film, which debuted in Mexico in 2018 and made the rounds the following year at various American Jewish film festivals, tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a gentile and is ostracized by her Jewish family. Cherem described it as more of a coming-of-age story rather than a love story — one that is semi-autobiographical.

“I wanted to talk about what was going on with me in the film,” said Cherem. The protagonist of the film is a female artist who struggles to find her place in her insular community after falling in love with a non-Jewish man. But for Cherem, the point of the film is a young person finding independence.

“This is about growing up and making your own decisions even when those decisions are different than what people want for you,”Cherem said. “People think they have the authority to tell her how to live her life, and she learns that taking her life in her hands is uncomfortable and difficult and uncertain, but probably the best she can do.”

The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. The film’s American publicist, Gary Springer, said Scottsdale was an obvious place to find an audience given its large Jewish population. The theatre is open to in-person viewing with socially-distanced seating and mask-wearing requirements.

When “Leona” was initially released in Mexico, it caused a bit of an uproar. Cherem acknowledged that the film is quite critical of his Jewish community in Mexico City, and that it has angered many people he grew up with. His family even feared for his safety when the film came out, he said, because they assumed showing the inner world of a tight-knit community would cause blowback.

But Cherem doesn’t mind the controversy the film has caused. Some of his community’s anger, he said, stems from being exposed before a wider Mexican public which it views as inferior. That is something he hopes to change.

“It’s important to get Mexican Jews to discuss what we need to do as a community and as individuals,” he said. “We need to be better and not suppress others.” JN

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