Famous documentary filmmakers fall into a few groups. There are the living masters like Frederick Wiseman and Albert Maysles who have earned deserved reputations as master craftsmen and storytellers. There are the self-promoters like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, who like to think they have invented themselves and their profession. (Errol Morris is sort of a cross between these two groups.) And there are the essayists, who range from the quirky-personal like Ross McElwee to the cerebral-philosophical like the late Chris Marker.
It’s hard to know how to place Anat Zuria, but her latest film, “The Lesson,” which is being shown as part of the Other Israel Film Festival Nov. 14-21, certainly will burnish her growing reputation as a major talent in non-fiction film.
“The Lesson” ostensibly is about the efforts of Layla Ibrahim Musa, an Egyptian-born Muslim woman in her 60s, to get a driver’s license. At the time that Zuria began filming, Layla had already taken over 200 driving lessons. During the two years of shooting, she would double that number, but it’s not a major spoiler to note that we never see her take her test. The real subject of the film, as in Zuria’s other excellent documentaries (“Purity,” “Sentenced to Marriage” and “Black Bus”), is the embattled place of women in the Middle East’s faith traditions and patriarchal hierarchies.
Layla married at 15, had six children, accompanied her husband to Israel in 1968, where he worked for the political section of Israel Radio in some mysterious capacity, and endured his physical and psychological abuse until one day he threw her out of the house for no apparent reason. Now she lives alone, estranged from some of the children, still in close contact with Hagar, one of the two unmarried daughters, who is also struggling to obtain her license.
Zuria structures the film around an alternation of Layla’s driving lessons, administered by a sympathetic Palestinian instructor, Nimar, who becomes a sort of confessor for her, with her struggles with family ties both broken and intact. She “Skypes” with her brother Usman back in Egypt, eats and argues with Hagar, fights with her ex-husband on the telephone about property matters. Zuria’s previous films have been formally rigorous and intellectually powerful works, but the choice to center “The Lesson” on a single, engaging person helps make it her richest work to date, combining artistic form with humane content. As a result, it announces her yet again as documentarian of exceptional skill.
Ganit Ilouz, the director of “Dove’s Cry,” another documentary on offer in this year’s event, isn’t as much a veteran as Anat Zuria, but his accomplished film suggests a long career in the offing.. The subject of the film, Hadeel, is a dedicated and charming young woman who teaches Arabic in a Jewish school in Tel Aviv. Her colleagues and family are supportive. Indeed, seemingly everyone in her family is a teacher, although her mother’s primary concern seems to be finding Hadeel a husband.
The kids almost without exception adore her, and watching her in the classroom it’s not hard to see why. At one point in the film she says of her teaching philosophy, “You get what you give,” and it is clear that she gives her students a great deal. There are occasional tensions with her principal over issues of religious identity and curriculum, but even these are resolved with a minimum of fuss.” Dove’s Cry” is a bit short on drama, but it is eminently enjoyable for the interaction of teacher and students.
Adi Adwan is a first-time feature director whose film, “Arabani” is another highlight of the festival this year. Adwan would be worthy of notice regardless of the quality of his film, simply because he is the first Israeli Druze to make a feature. Happily, “Arabani” is not merely a footnote to Israeli cinematic history; it’s a deft, thoughtful work that suggests the presence of an artist of promise.
Yosef (Eyad Sheety) is a middle-aged Druze whose marriage to a Jewish woman has ended in an acrimonious divorce. Now he returns to his small village with his teenage children, Smadar (Daniella Nidam) and Eli (Tom Kelrich), each of whom brings his and her own emotional baggage. He shows up at the home of his mother (Zuhaira Sabbagh), whose first reaction to his surprise arrival is to slap him in the face. As the film notes in an opening title card, Druze identity is predicated on both parents, so Yosef’s choice of a wife is a deeply troubling one for this profoundly conservative community. The tensions are exacerbated by the kids, who are used to a much more open lifestyle; Smadar dresses like a typical Western teen, Eli smokes in the street, and both find themselves hanging out with a coterie of tough guys. And Yosef has demons of his own to confront.
Adwan develops the intricate network of relationships, back stories and customs slowly, tantalizingly, avoiding the obvious potential to exploit them for melodrama. As a result, the film is measured, with a slow smolder that — by design — never bursts into flames but leaves its share of burn marks on the viewer nevertheless.
This year’s festival includes several other promising premieres. “Inheritance” marks the directorial debut of the marvelous actress Hiam Abbas with a tale of a wedding in Galilee that exposes multiple rifts in a Palestinian family. The program of short films “New Voices 2013” includes new work from Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, and Eran Riklis. Finally, and perhaps the most exciting, the program for this year includes the first US showing of an episode of the TV version of “The Gatekeepers,” Dror Moreh’s exceptional documentary about six former directors of Shin Bet, with Moreh present to field audience questions.
(Although it is also part of the festival, “It’s Better to Jump,” a new documentary about children and shifting demographics in Akko, opens theatrically Nov. 15 and will be reviewed then.)
The 7th Annual Other Israel Film Festival runs Nov. 14-21 at the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.), the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.), Congregation Beth Elohim (274 Garfield Pl., Brooklyn), the Kane Street Synagogue (236 Kane St., Brooklyn) and the NYU King Juan Carlos Center (53 Washington Square South). For a complete schedule and other information, go to http://otherisraelfilmfestival.org/