MRR Review: "Besa: The Promise"

Photo Credit: JWM Productions
November 12th, 2013


Through the magic and power of cinema, the Youngstown Area Jewish Film Festival provides an annual forum, which enriches, educates and entertains our diverse community about the Jewish experience. The Youngstown Area Jewish Film Festival (YAJFF) is presented by the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation and Youngstown State University's Center for Judaic & Holocaust Studies. 


 "Besa: The Promise"

In Albania the word besa means promise. It is not just a word, but a way of life for the Albanian people and something that they take very seriously. They believe that once you make a promise, you are bound to that promise beyond life and beyond generations. This is the message of Jewish photographer/filmmaker Norman H. Gershman in “Besa: The Promise”.

Norman Gershman, tells the little known story of Jewish refugees in Albania during WWII. The documentary introduces us to many characters, both Jewish and Albanian and helps to paint the picture of a Muslim country occupied by Nazi Germany. When Gershman heard about Muslims risking their lives to protect Jews, he knew this story had to be told. He set out to disarm the world’s current resentment of Islam. He started by traveling to Albania and letting people tell their story.

Though there are many stories told, the majority of the film focuses on Rexhep Hoxha, a Muslim-Albanian. Rexhep must fulfill the promise made to a Jewish family his father rescued during the Holocaust and return to them a set of Hebrew books they left behind. Rexhep had spent most of his life trying to find the lost family, but had very little resources. Now with the power of the internet, and a little help from Gershman, Rexhep has his best chance of fulfilling his father’s besa.

This documentary is by no means the most polished or pretty, but that actually in a way adds to its charm. It depicts a Muslim country, Albania, in a way that I never could have imagined. In fact, the most fascinating thing about the film, for me, was how decades of communism had affected this Muslim nation. This is something I had never seen before. Albania looks more like Russia than any Muslim country you could imagine, and the people are to match.

This film does a great job of sharing a controversial story without forcing an agenda. It has many emotional moments but does not exploit the horrors of The Holocaust to invoke that emotion. The film avoids telling graphic details which may make it more suitable for younger viewers than other Holocaust films. This film appeals to a wide range of viewers and I recommend it for anyone who enjoys history or is interested in learning about WWII or The Holocaust.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5