The Arts: The Other Israel on Screen
A film festival debuted in New York last fall, attracting a new audience to movieson Arab identity and culture in the State of Israel—and, perhaps, started a conversation.
With great trepidation, Mona approaches the customs house on the Israeli side of the border in the Golan Heights. As a Druze, she knows that once she leaves the country to join her fiancé in Syria, she will not be permitted back into Israel. She will never see her parents and siblings again. It is her wedding day, but a tear rolls down her cheek as she hands over her passport to begin her new life.
Israeli director Eran Riklis shot this scene in 2004 for his film Syrian Bride. Along with 20 other features, documentaries and shorts,Syrian Bride was screened last November in New York as part of the Other Israel Film Festival/ Images of Arab Citizens of Israel, which played to sell-out crowds. (For more on the films, go towww.otherisrael.org.)
Why would festival founder Carole Zabar create this event in a city that for 25 years has hosted the enormously popular Israel Film Festival, whose sole purpose is bringing Israeli movies to American audiences? Demographics: Whereas 40 percent of the moviegoers who attend the IFF are Israelis, nearly all of the 2,000 attendees at the Other Israel event were Americans, 30 percent of whom were not Jewish.
“A certain number of people go to Israeli films and they’re cognizant of Arab Israelis, but I wanted to reach a wider audience,” explains Zabar. Her goal, as stated in the festival brochure, was simple: “I founded the Other Israel Film Festival to serve as a platform for New Yorkers to learn about the culture, identity and the daily life of Israeli Arab citizens…. Through the…festival, Arab Israelis who have long been a part of Israel’s art and film scene will bring [their] perspectives and culture to an audience that has never heard this voice before.”
Zabar’s call echoes others that have arisen in the past few years. Following the publication of the Or Commission report in 2003, 70 North American Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, UJA-Federation of New York and Hadassah, came together on the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues with the mission of educating North Americans about advancing civic equality in Israel for Jews and Arabs.
Says ADL’s Kenneth Jacobson, a member of the task force’s executive committee, “With everything that has happened in the past 60 years, a good chunk of Arab Israelis have remained loyal to the State of Israel. That should not be taken for granted. Moreover, American support for Israel is predicated on Israel’s being a democratic state like America. The treatment of minorities is an important facet of democracy.”
Zabar did not want the festival to be about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the films would focus only on Arabs living within Israel’s 1967 borders.
“[The idea] was not to separate the Arab Israelis from the general background of the conflict but to put a spotlight on the community,” says Ravit Turjeman, festival director and founder of Dragoman Films, a distribution company specializing in Middle Eastern cinema.
To that end, the festival screened feature films like Atash (2004), directed by Tawfik Abu Wael, about a dictatorial Arab patriarch who forces his family to live in an abandoned Israeli military outpost where he illegally diverts water to their land. “The water surging through the pipe parallels the surging resentment the family feels toward the father,” says producer Avi Kleinberger.
Also screened was the 2007 satire Arab Labor, a television series in which Amjad tries to “Israelify” himself to succeed as a journalist, and the classic Behind the Walls (nominated for a 1984 Academy Award for best foreign language film), depicting an unlikely partnership between a Jew and an Arab in Israel’s central prison.
Documentaries included David Deri’s No Longer Ahmed (2007), which introduces a Bedouin youth who leaves his village, takes an Israeli name and joins a kibbutz. “I wanted to expose the young Bedouins’ identity crisis, being torn between their longing to be part of the modern Jewish society and their loyalty to their historical Arab traditions,” Deri explains.
In contrast to Ahmed’s escape into Israeli society is Rokaya Sabbah’s On Hold (2007), in which the Arab filmmaker examines her own feelings as well as those of family and friends as she contemplates moving to Spain to escape being a second-class citizen.
Zabar began her journey as festival founder by asking Rabbi Joy Levitt, director of the JCC in Manhattan, to host the festival. Both agreed that dialogue would be critical to the event’s success. “We wanted to create community by getting people together in a room and having a discussion,” explains Levitt. That is why there were postscreening question-and–answer sessions that allowed interaction between audience and filmmakers.
For example, after a screening of Since You Left, festival adviser Mohammad Bakri’s autobiographical documentary, Zabar and Bakri—who describes himself as a Palestinian Israeli—had “a civilized argument…,” recalls Zabar. “I didn’t use the term Palestinian Israeli because I thought New Yorkers would get confused and think that we were referring to people in the territories. Most people think it’s synonymous with [an Arab] wanting to live in Palestine if there’s a two-state solution, but that’s not true. [Israeli Arabs] want to stay in Israel. It’s their home. That’s where their families are, their friends, their roots.”
Screenings took place at the JCC as well as at Symphony Space and Cinema Village, uptown and downtown venues. “The festival provided a unique chance for creators and audience to exchange thoughts,” says Sabbah. “It gave us the opportunity to know each other first of all as human beings.”
Richard Peña, director of the New York Film Festival, moderated a discussion of Arab and Israeli filmmakers on the challenges of working together in a medium that is marked by both personal vision and collaboration; it was standing-room only.
At the epicenter of the activity was the Other Israel Café, an extension of the JCC’s eatery. The café opened approximately one hour before the first screening and stayed open until the last program finished.
“The café synergized all the energy in our festival,” says Zabar, who took to the streets to advertise.
“I persuaded my husband [Saul Zabar] to let me sit in front of Zabar’s [his popular food emporium on the Upper West Side] with my brochures. People asked a lot of questions—an Israeli, a Lebanese, a Holocaust survivor, each with [his] own perspective.”
Carole Zabar, who underwrote the festival, is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a fluent Hebrew speaker and board member of the JCC, New Israel Fund and American Friends of Meretz.
While the thousands of film festivals that take place around the country premiere new films, “new” was not the criteria for choosing films for the Other Israel Film Festival. The IFF had already screened four of the picks but, as Levitt states simply, “Most people didn’t see these films before.”
Zabar’s indifference to showing new titles wasn’t the festival’s only curiosity: Although it was about Israeli Arabs, most of the films were made by Israeli Jews. Bakri, star of Israel’s Habima Theater and such films as Costa Gavras’s Hanna K. and Eran Riklis’s Cup Final, was disappointed in Zabar’s choices. He would have shown documentaries such as Palestinian filmmaker Basil Ghatas’s Aroos Aljaleel (Bride From the Galilee), in which Israeli pilot Abi Natan asks forgiveness from a Palestinian woman who became handicapped when he bombed her home.
“He became a hero of peace when he came to visit her in her village and apologize,” Bakri explains. “It is a very moving meeting between a Palestinian Arab and an Israeli.”
But there are other israelis who can also assess their society. Russians have always comprised a good percentage of the filmmaking community in Israel, but the Russians from the latestaliya are perceived as “others” in the modern-day state. Russian-born Riki Shelach founded the Israeli Motion Picture Academy and served as a chairman of the Israeli Directors Guild. In 2002, he produced Trumpet in the Wadi, a story in which a Russian Jewisholeh falls in love with an Arab woman. Trumpet’s directors were also Russian.
“The directors’ outsider perspective helped create a more normal point of view on the love story,” says Shelach. “[If] the movie had been made by an Israeli-born director with army service on his résumé…it would have been totally different. The political tension between Arabs and Jews would have received a much larger place.”
The films themselves reify the festival’s hope of cross-cultural recognition. Consider the making of Syrian Bride. When Riklis came up with the idea for the film (based on a real event), he looked for a Druze coauthor. The Druze have no tradition of cinema or theater, however, so Riklis hired Suha Aref, an Israeli Arab, to write the screenplay. Aref wrote the dialogue in Hebrew and the Israeli Arab cast rehearsed in Hebrew (Riklis doesn’t speak Arabic). It was then translated into Arabic. “I could ‘hear’ the Arabic without being able to understand it,” Riklis says. “Because I knew the text so well and the characters were ideal…the production went as smoothly as possible.”
Zabar may be American, but her inspiration for the film festival was born in Jerusalem. “How much the Arab citizens are a part of Israeli life was brought home to me visiting the Hadassah Hospital [in December ,” she writes in the festival brochure. “I had a long conversation with one of the doctors, and I assumed I was speaking to a Jew until he handed me his card and I understood that he was an Arab. He must have noticed my surprise because he laughed and said, ‘If you lived in Israel, you would know that half the doctors and nurses here at Hadassah are Arabs.’”
Though the doctor may have overstated the number of Arab staff at the hospital, Zabar’s reaction was well-founded: The Hadassah Medical Organization was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for promoting peace in the Middle East by providing equal treatment to Palestinians and Israelis as well as their work in training Palestinian doctors to work in their own communities. Zabar’s experience at the hospital as well as an inspiring lecture on the healing power of art given by Bakri were all the inspiration she needed.
Why did she choose film to achieve her goal of educating Americans about Arab Israelis? “It’s a democratic medium,” she instantly replies. “Besides, people like going to movies, and it seemed like a great way to get them to meet and talk.”
Zabar plans a second festival next year. She’s already received offers from Rotterdam to take it abroad and she might collaborate with a similar festival in Toronto called Voices Forward. Zabar is even thinking about screening the festival in Israel.
It’s an odd notionan American showing the locals the films they make about themselves. However, it’s just possible that Zabar can hold a mirror before the complicated Middle East that only an “other” can.