The New York film festival that pulls the 'other' Israel into focus

Sweets

Last July, as the fighting in Gaza began, Carole Zabar was attending the Jerusalem Film Festival. The founder of the Other Israel Film Festival (and wife of Saul Zabar, of New York’s lox-and-bagels emporium Zabar’s) was vetting work for her own cinema event. Many participants didn’t show as the bombing intensified, and even those on the left seemed far more invested in Israel’s security than the plight of its Arab citizens. “Spirits were really down,” recalled Zabar last week. “Saul looked at me and said, ‘Boy, you are going to get some pushback this year.”

But that hasn’t been the case. As the eighth Other Israel Film Festival came to a close at the Manhattan JCC last week, Zabar says the festival has been more popular than ever, boasting 10,000 filmgoers, sold out and capacity screenings, and panels – all a testament to this year’s motto, “Now more than ever.”

“We felt after such a polarizing summer there was a real need to build bridges and see the other side,” says the festival’s executive director, Isaac Zablocki. “Carole and I believed strongly in the power of film to create change. She very much wanted the American community to understand the complexity of Arab life in Israel and see beyond the slogans.”

This year’s lineup didn’t shy away from doing just that, kicking off the festival with the film “Life Sentences,” about an Israeli man whose father was a high-ranking Palestine Liberation Organization official and Hamas leader, and whose mother is an Orthodox Jew. His fractured identity is perhaps the best metaphor for a splintered country increasingly in the clutches of extremist groups.

The film, codirected by Nurit Kedar, took home best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July, and was met with equal enthusiasm on U.S. shores, though some bristled at the documentary’s depiction of Jews. Still, as Zablocki notes, American Jews have distance and perspective on the issues presented in the movie.

“Saul’s brother, who never really grasped the importance of this festival in previous years, finally got it after seeing this movie,” says Zabar. “He understood, in this one man’s story, just how torn the country is.”

Though few subjects are as ruptured as the movie’s protagonist, Nimer Ahmad – who also was called Shlomo, Mommi and Solomon, depending on where and with whom he was living – many filmmakers and panelists spoke of their conflicted identities and how they often felt caught between a rock and a hard place.

“The more radical Palestinians would say I’m a traitor,” says Arab-Israeli actor and filmmaker Mohammad Bakri, who was on hand to show his short, “Blackness,” and whose 2003 documentary “Jenin, Jenin” was initially censored and almost landed him in jail.

Not going anywhere

To those who claim Zabar’s festival is redundant due to New York’s Israel Film Festival, which showed two of the films in her lineup, Bakri says such an uncensored other perspective is unique.

“Israel’s other voices aren’t usually heard in America and it’s very important to bring them to the Jewish community here, especially now,” he says. “Most are drowning in fear or manipulated. And things have gotten desperate. But have I lost hope? No. I wouldn’t be here if I felt that way. I’m an Israeli, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.”

Those sentiments were in stark contrast to Arab-Israeli writer and Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashua, who appeared on a panel last Saturday after a screening of his hit TV show “Arab Labor.” He announced he was glad he never began a fifth season of his black comedy.

“I have no hope left for Israel,” he said, echoing his July Haaretz column “Why Sayed Kashua is leaving Jerusalem and never coming back.” Then he spoke of moving to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where, as he signed his children up for school and filled out tenant applications for a rental, learned he wasn’t considered a minority in the United States.

“I looked for the label ‘Arab,’ by the line where I was supposed to list my demographic background,” he said. “But I didn’t see anything. So I asked the landlady what to do. She said, ‘You’re Caucasian.’ So here I am, finally part of the majority. It feels great to be white. Over there I have no future. Here I do.”

But the view that Israeli society has reached its nadir was strongly refuted by Sammy Smooha, a sociology professor at the University of Haifa, who has studied comparative ethnic relations and conflict in Israel through the past few decades. “Attitudes are shifting and there is greater overall tolerance,” he claimed, citing results of a 2012 demographic study. He asked what steps Israelis were willing to take to make sure Arabs felt more like equals, and 73 percent said they should participate in government coalitions and 55 percent believed Arab citizens should receive funding in proportion to their share of the population.

“Things are getting better and are not as polarized as we think,” Smooha said, before being drowned out by other panelists.

Arab-Israeli reporter Lucy Aharish referenced an interview she conducted over the summer, in which a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane told her she had no place in Israeli society. Singer, songwriter and actor Mira Awad spoke of how social media has helped increase the divide, instead of bridging the gap. “During the Gaza war, my Facebook page was scary,” she said. “I got death threats from both sides.”

Spirit of harmony

But the condemnation hasn’t totally dampened her spirits. Last weekend she joined David Broza for a live performance, after a screening of his “East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem” – about the recording of his latest album in Palestinian musician Said Murad’s Sabreen Studio, in East Jerusalem.

Though his documentary offers a glimpse of the beautiful music that can be made when West Bank Palestinians, Arabs in East Jerusalem, those living in refugee camps and Jews come together in the spirit of harmony, it ends with ultra-Orthodox men chanting “Death to the Arabs,” which prompts Arabs to respond with “Death to the Jews.”

Broza began a musical outreach program to students in the Shoafat refugee camp where album guest G-Town is from. However, he has not heard from the rapper since the beginning of the Gaza war. “Everything’s on hold,” he says. “But hopefully, we’ll resume.”

Other films captured Filipino, Christian and Iraqi-Jewish narratives. One of the hardest-working actors of the week was Menashe Noy, who costars in “Arab Labor,” “Farewell Baghdad” (aka “The Dove Flyer”), “Sweets,” as well as “Gett,” which wasn’t shown at the festival but took home the top prize at the annual Ophir Awards and is Israel’s contender for best foreign film at the 2015 Academy Awards. The Iraqi-Jewish actor appeared on several panels, driving home the message of the festival, “Now more than ever.”

“After the second intifada, Israel was at a low point morally,” he said. “But it led to very important work in cinema. I believe we need to seize this moment as artists and actors, writers and filmmakers.”

Dror Moreh, whose documentary “The Gatekeepers” interviewed six former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and portrayed the occupation as a threat to Israel’s democracy, was more cynical. “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has more of a stronghold than ever,” he said last Sunday.

But perhaps the seeds of change take time to grow. Granted, the premise of the Other Israel Film Festival is an audacious one, but by the festival’s conclusion last Thursday, audiences were left with a deeper understanding of the challenges facing Israel and its “other” populations.

If festivalgoers are moved to change, Zabar refers them to one of the sponsors – such as Hand in Hand, which promotes Arab-Israeli education in Israel. But enacting actual social reform isn’t her objective.

“The point is to humanize Arabs and all the many other minorities living in Israel, to move beyond cliché,” she says. “Once you do that, then dialogue is easier. Israeli society is complex and fraught with nuance. Film has the power to show things in depth. And only then can we begin to understand each other.”