Honoring “The Other Israel” on Film

Honoring “The Other Israel” on Film

To New Yorkers, especially on the Upper Westside, Zabar’s means bagels and lox. But four years ago, Carole Zabar served up a cinematic banquet called “The Other Israel Film Festival” with surprising ingredients. Focusing exclusively on Israel’s 20% Arab population—a mix that includes Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, and Druze—she designed her 10-day movie marathon “to show that Palestinian-Israelis are not terrorists, but mothers, fathers, and children just like us.”

As in years past, Festival 2010 kicked off Nov. 11 at the Jewish Community Center (close to the famous deli) with Zabar, Rabbi Joy Levitt, and playwright Tony Kushner welcoming a capacity audience. “I want the New York community to experience an Israel that is far from being the monolithic state implied in the words ‘Jewish homeland,’” said Zabar about her goals. “Israel’s Arab population also consider the land they live in to be their homeland.”

 Zabar speaks from experience, having lived and studied in Israel. She found inspiration for a festival dedicated to cultural understanding in personal friendships with Arab- and Jewish-Israeli artists, especially with actor/director Mohammad Bakri. Bakri, who has attended every year since 2007, describes Zabar as “a very courageous woman and a great dreamer.” The admiration is mutual: “Mohammad gives me my language,” says Zabar.

Though Zabar once hoped The Other Israel Film Festival could rise above politics, she now rejects the “divisive forces” in Israeli political life and the effect of special interests in the US. “This is not a Jewish way of thinking,” she emphasizes. She feels the current political climate makes her festival even more important because it’s intended to encourage dialogue and debate. “In a time of increasing Islamophobia,” she says, “our festival bridges gaps and promotes tolerance.”

Arab-Jewish collaboration was the message of There Must Be Way, presented opening night by singer Mira Awad. The documentary follows Awad and her Jewish colleague Noa to the Eurovision song contest in 2009. Awad made history —and drew criticism—as the first Arab-Israeli to represent Israel in that contest. After hearing her perform on opening night and three nights later with Jewish-Israeli composer Tamar Muskal, no one in New York doubts she deserves a world stage.

Cinematic fare this year was spiced with US film premieres: Adama (Land), in which Bakri plays a Jewish Moroccan farmer; Blood Relation, director Noa Ben Hagai’s quest to reconnect with a “lost” Palestinian family member; Back and Forth, portraits of the Negrev by four Bedouin directors; Coffee, short films inspired by our favorite brew, including a memorable dramatization by Bakri and his son Ziad of text by Mahmoud Darwish; an Israeli version
of “The Office”; and a hit TV show “The Weekly Portion.”

Attendees had plenty of opportunity to meet directors and other film professionals. On hand to answer questions about the TV satire “Arab Labor,” for example, were creator Sayed Kashua and producer Danny Paran. Director Anat Tel presented I’m Not Filipina, which depicts the challenges of a six-year-old blind girl and her adoptive parent. After screening Lod Detour, director Orna Raviv described her battle to gain the trust of the high school students she portrayed. “I tried to see things from the kids’ point of view,” she explained.

Second-graders in Tel Aviv have no trouble speaking their minds in World Class Kids;     producer Edna Kowarsky answered audience questions. Actress Sofi Tzdaka was present to  tell the tragic story of what happened to her family after she and her three sisters left their Samaritan sect. In Lone Samaritan the sect’s closed community and ancient traditions are unveiled by director Barak Heymann. Director Yaron Shani introduced his Oscar-nominated crime drama Ajami, and Bakri, his directorial memoir Zahara.

Panels on Israeli TV, education, democracy, and migrant labor attracted other notables, such as author Naomi Ragen, directors Rani Bleier and Uri Rosenwaks, actresses Debra Winger and Clara Khoury, historian Benny Morris, and political reporter Aharon Barnea. A brunch with Gideon Levy, Israeli journalist and editor of Haaretz newspaper; scholar Khalil Rinnawi; and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman added more depth to the tough subjects tackled on screen.

Precious Life closed the festival, giving its audience much to ponder about the complexity of daily battles in a war zone. Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar tracks his and Dr. Raz Somech’s fight to save the life of four-month-old Mohammad, born without an immune system. An anonymous Israeli donor funds the baby’s bone-marrow transplant, and the race is on to save one life despite the horrors of the 2009 Gaza bombing and decades of mistrust.

Zabar has fought a few battles in mounting her unusual exhibition. Most of her guests this year received letters urging them not to attend—for different reasons. Thankfully, for the 6,000 who witnessed these remarkable documents of an often “unseen” Israel, compassion and sanity prevailed.

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