Call it the Jewish Spellbound. Bible Kings switches the arena from the Scripps National Spelling Bee to the Chidon HaTanakh, the International Bible Contest. But instead of a group of anxiety-ridden teens, the stars of this new documentary are adults from all over the world, with various Jewish backgrounds, who have undergone an intensive year of studying and memorization of Tanakh (the acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, Prophets, and Ketuvim, Writings), the culmination of which is a televised competition.
Premiering on French television channel Escales on February 22, Bible Kings is the second documentary for Antoine Arditti, a 34-year-old French filmmaker. Arditti’s first film, I Am Dallas Malloy, featured a female bodybuilder in Los Angeles and impressed his production company enough that they left the subject of his second project entirely up to him. When the Chidon, run under the auspices of Israel’s Ministry of Education, restarted its competition for adults in 2012 after a 32-year break, Arditti took note.
“I had always wanted to make a film that is related to my Jewish roots, and when I saw that the Chidon was starting the adult competition again, I knew I found my next documentary,” Arditti, who was raised in Israel and moved to Paris at 18, explained. “But while the film relates to Israel, I was also excited to paint a portrait of Jews living in the Diaspora and how they interpret and apply the Tanakh to their lives in different ways.”
Arditti traveled to New York, Glasgow, Strasbourg, Berlin, and Jerusalem—where the contest takes place—to interview select participants in their homes as they studied, focusing on the week leading up the competition. The contestants we meet are of varying ethnicities and Jewish backgrounds, from an Indian professor from Mumbai to an atheistic Scot, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches Bible at Yeshiva University, and a Satmar Hasid from Brooklyn.
That a documentary about an Israeli Jewish competition was commissioned in and will be airing in France during a period of heightened tension for Jews in the country is perhaps difficult to reconcile. More than 40 percent of French Jews fear publicly identifying as Jews according to a recent European Union poll, and a group of anti-government demonstrators recently marched through Paris on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day shouting anti-Semitic slurs.
Arditti, who says he has never encountered anti-Semitism in France either personally or professionally, expressed concern over its increasing presence. Still, he believes his film transcends its obvious associations with the Jewish people. “It shows how people relate to the Bible in their everyday lives,” he said, “and I think that’s something universal.
Negotiations are underway for the film’s distribution in the United States, and the JCC in Manhattan is in talks with Arditti to showcase the film at one of its Israeli film festivals in the coming year.