This year’s lineup at the Sixth Annual Other Israel Film Festival proves to be yet another thoughtful look into the marginalized community of Arab Israelis. The festival serves as a platform for Muslim Arab and Palestinian voices to express their complicated relationships to Israel. The goal of the festival “is to promote awareness and appreciation of the diversity of the state of Israel, provide a dynamic and inclusive forum for exploration of, and dialogue about populations in margins of Israeli society, and encourage cinematic expression and creativity dealing with these themes.” So far, the festival lineup has been a great success. The films I’ve seen so far have explored the topic of Arab marginalization by presenting complex, honest, and often heart-wrenching portrayals of life and identity exploration within the Jewish state. The festival runs until Thursday, November 15th in New York City, and I highly recommend taking the time to see one of the many incredible films in this year’s lineup.
At the opening gala of the Other Israel Film Festival on Thursday, November 8th, we heard from its co-founder and executive producer, Carole Zabar. In explaining what she hoped to achieve from this week’s socially conscious film showings, she simply stated, “I just run a film festival.” In short, she hopes that the films will impart a cultural and political awareness that, if nothing else, will encourage us to “pay it forward.” The actor Mandy Patinkin, one of the stars of the popular series Homeland (2011), also offered us some opening remarks and reflection on the discrimination toward Arab Israelis and Palestinians by the state of Israel. Quoting a young Palestinian activist, he asked if there was something unreasonable about wanting freedom, justice, and dignity for all humanity. He challenged us to travel the roads of Israel, to see firsthand for ourselves the places where only Jews are allowed to walk. He urged us to witness Israel’s state-sponsored ghettoization of Palestinians, drawing an eerie allusion to a Jewish past in Eastern Europe.
The opening film was director Ami Livne’s Sharqiya (2012), a fictional yet realistic tale of the Bedouin Arab experience within the margins of Israeli society. Co-founder and executive director of the festival, Isaac Zablocki, introduced the film as having a “Bedouin pace,” and urged the New York audience to have a little patience. Many of the scenes follow our protagonist, Kamel Najer (Ednan Abu Wadi), walking for miles through the desert, navigating between his security job at an Israeli bus station and his Bedouin tent, where he lives with his brother, Khaled (Ednan Abu Muhrab) and sister-in-law, Nadia (Misa Abd el-Hadi). The two brothers reflect distinct perspectives. Kamel works and associates with Jewish Israelis, and he encourages his sister-in-law to follow her dream to study. Meanwhile, Khaled works their land, acts disappointed in Kamel for selling out and working for the Israelis, and forbids his wife from improving her mind. The film begins with the discovery of a demolition notice, and each brother approaches the situation with his distinctive personality—Khaled, with anger and frustration and Kamel, with calm and reason and, eventually, passive aggressive feats. In the end, neither wins out against the Israeli government. Kamel and Khaled’s family have owned their land since before Israel’s foundation in 1948, but since they cannot present a deed, the government deems their recently built housing illegal. Perhaps the most powerful moment of the film is when the government finally arrives, with its squad of police backup and bulldozer, and then proceeds to raze their home before their eyes.
In his attempt to portray an authentic account of Bedouin life, director Ami Livne tirelessly searched for amateur Bedouin actors that could strike the right balance of authenticity and quality acting. At the discussion after the film, Livne described the way through which he found his lead actor, Ednan Abu Wadi. Livne had ventured to his village late at night, and they had done their screen test in the car headlights under an overpass. He admitted that while it wasn’t the best screen test ever, that he had somehow perceived a spark. An audience member asked why the film had so many quiet moments—moments where the camera simply followed our protagonist as he made his way through the desert, across the paved roads, and into the city. He explained that it was his way of portraying the Bedouin reality, that the real actor’s life was full of walking that consumed much of his day. It’s also a way to tangibly express the displacement of the Bedouin community and its distance from the parallel reality of the Jewish Israeli experience.
Sharqiya is just a taste of an array of both dramatic and documentary films showcased at this year’s Sixth Annual Israeli Film Festival. Many of the screenings take place at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, with additional showings happening downtown at Cinema Village and other locations across New York City. For a full listing of films and showtimes, please refer to the festival website. Don’t miss the closing ceremony, featuring the US premiere of director Ronny Sasson Angel’s Wherever you Go (2011) and Eye Drops (2011), followed by a conversation with Sasson Angel and renowned Palestinian-Israeli director Mohammad Bakri.
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Israel, Palestine, Palestinians