Film festival programmers frequently feel themselves caught in the middle between dueling imperatives. On the one hand, it is important to show the best films available within the scope of the festival. On the other hand, it is also important to have those films spark a dialogue, a conversation that will continue long after the sound of applause has faded away. When the film festival has an extra-cinematic agenda, that two-way tug-of-war becomes more complicated and sometimes even painful.
Consider the case of the Other Israel Film Festival, which begins its fourth annual run on Thursday, Nov. 11. The festival has its roots at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, and festival executive director Isaac Zablocki takes “community” as a central part of his mandate.
“We are not trying to have a debate about Israel and Palestine,” he says. “The way the conversations [here] are conducted is much more effective. They are actual conversations, not just debating.”
With its focus on Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, the festival is calculated to expose some raw nerve endings. But the purpose of that painful operation, Zablocki says, is to further a dialogue that is based around the reality that the films depict rather than the preconceptions audiences may bring to the theater. To illustrate his point, he offers as an example of the difference the film “World Class Kids,” directed by Netta Loevy.
“Kids” is a documentary that follows a group of Tel Aviv students through the second grade. There is no voice-over narration. “The CAP film doesn’t take sides,” Zablocki says. Instead, it shows the increasingly complicated nature of Israeli society, a multicultural mix that includes Russian immigrant kids with no history of connection to Zionism, the children of foreign workers, Israeli Arab children, Palestinian children — all of them being educated in a Jewish curriculum in a Jewish state.
“You don’t argue when you see a reality,” Zablocki asserts. “Everybody will be touched by the personal stories of the children. It shows the innocence that exists in the kids and the lack of innocence as well. You see some of the ironies, but there is no commentary to ‘help’ you to draw conclusions.”
The festival itself has changed subtly to reflect the changes in Israel. Originally the Other Israel festival highlighted the situation of Israeli Arabs and the Druze and Bedouins who lived in Israel. This year, though, the focus has expanded to include Russian olim, the tiny Samaritan community (in a striking documentary, “Lone Samaritan” directed by Barak Heymann), and foreign workers.
“Our subject now is all the minorities within Israeli society,” Zablocki explains. “That was always our plan. It has been a natural evolution, part of our desire to reach other audiences.”
Of course, much depends on the quality and kind of films that are being made, but in that respect the Israeli film industry has more than done its part.
“Israel is surprisingly focused on its minorities,” he says. “There are specific funds available for making films on these subjects. You’re dealing with a country in which the film industry is driven to some extent by government funding. Israel is such a multicultural society now that everyone is invested in the success of the film industry.”
Zablocki also notes a phenomenon that will be obvious to anyone who has followed Israeli arts and entertainment in the past twenty years.
“Israel has matured when it comes to its approach [to the arts],” he says. “You now have artists who are the third generation of their families living in Israel. They’re telling their own stories; they’re creating stories that are personal.”
For the most part, young Israeli filmmakers are not interested in rehashing the past, in revisiting the old black-and-white morality plays of the Middle East conflict. As can be seen from films like “Waltzing with Bashir” and “Lebanon,” they are more concerned with understanding their own intensely personal experiences of the conflict.
That change is reflected in gentler ways by the films in this year’s festival. For example, “I’m Not Filipina,” a documentary by Anat Tel that centers on the life a Filipina guest worker and her adopted blind six-year-old daughter, offers no judgment on the harsh line taken by the government on immigration. Tel’s concern is almost entirely on the warm relationship of mother and daughter, but the subtext of economic and political forces pressing in on them is unmistakable and insistent, never shrill but always there.
In addition to the wider focus of the festival’s offerings, this year’s event also includes many more guest speakers and appearances by filmmakers. A potentially engaging new format in which they can interact with audiences is in keeping with the festival’s desire to build an ongoing conversation around the issues the films raise.
“We’re not doing Q&As after the screenings,” Zablocki says. “We’ll bring people upstairs to what we call the ‘Speakeasy Café’ where the discussions can have more length, where we want to try to make it a conversation and not a debate.”
One of the salutary effects of the festival’s previous focus on dialogue has been that among the disparate filmmakers themselves a small community is emerging, to the surprise and delight of its executive director.
“We didn’t expect it, but the festival has become known in Israeli society,” he says. “Filmmakers are eager to join in. You have a lot of film people who might never have met otherwise and now they’re becoming a sort of informal family unit.”
Which proves that the desire to show good films and the need to build community needn’t be in conflict at all.
The 4th annual Other Israel Film Festival runs from Nov. 11-21 at several venues in Manhattan, principally the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Avenue at76th St.) and the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.). For more information including the locations and times of all screenings, roundtables and special events and the Speakeasy Café schedule, go to www.otherisrael.org. Films from previous years of the festival will be available for viewing online at that website as well.