The concept of the Jewish diaspora has its origins in being scattered from Eretz Yisroel, so it’s inevitable that those who return will be as confounded as those who left. To stay sane, you need a certain ironic distance from the mess.
That stance is common to three of the films in this year’s Other Israel Film Festival, now in its 11th year of offering a wide lens on the Jewish state’s marginalized populations; it opens a weeklong run on Thursday, Nov. 2.
One expects a satirical film like “Holy Air,” the festival’s closing night offering, to display a certain knowing humor based on the historical incongruities of three colliding Abrahamic faiths jostling in one very tiny space. But the opening film, “In Between,” a downbeat, almost fatalistic drama of three Arabic women — one Muslim, one Christian, one secular — sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv, possesses a dark irony all its own that feels like a distorted mirror-reflection of its closing-night counterpart.
And “Waiting for Giraffes,” a gentle, guardedly upbeat documentary about the only zoo in Palestine, has a quiet, detached humor that seems to stem from the same point of reluctant resigned acceptance of the chaotic realities of the conflict.
Undoubtedly the remaining films in this year’s event will fill in a broader picture. Perhaps none of them will offer the barbed wit of “Holy Air,” the no-exit pessimism of “In Between” or the workaday calm of “Waiting for Giraffes.”
Films about the grinding damage of daily life in the region are thick on the ground, and by now anyone who hasn’t seen a film that touches on the Kafkaesque life of those in the West Bank probably has avoided them by choice. “Waiting for Giraffes” finds an unexpected point of entry into the conflict, focusing on Qalqilya Zoo, the only such establishment in the Palestinian territories. Marco de Stefanis, the director, focuses on the day-to-day, hand-(or claw or hoof)-to-mouth struggles of the zoo under the devoted and loving leadership of Dr. Sami Khader, the head zoologist.
The zoo, which has a ramshackle charm, is a struggling but energetic enterprise aided by a core of dedicated staff and enthusiastic visitors. The film takes as its dramatic spine the zoo’s efforts to join the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the professional community that offers training and other assistance to zoos throughout Europe and the Middle East. Dr. Khader’s fondest wish is for Qalqilya to belong to EAZA, which would make it possible for them to participate in its programs, including the loan of animals from other member zoos.
As the film’s title suggests, the loss of Qalqilya’s only giraffe had a traumatic effect on the zoo. The giraffe’s fate encapsulates the sad reality of life in a virtual war zone. During the second intifada, the giraffe became so panic-stricken by the sound of gunfire nearby that it ran headlong into a pillar and knocked itself unconscious; it is one of the peculiarities of giraffe anatomy that because of the distance between heart and brain (almost 10 feet), giraffes cannot lie prone without the radical shift in blood pressure causing death.
For the filmmakers, the zoo’s search for a giraffe is actually secondary in importance to its attempt to join EAZA and to the entangling red-tape barriers posed by the splitting of Israeli and Palestinian authority over land the zoo needs for a complicated expansion involving a football stadium, an amusement park and a potential location for an aquarium. This little tragicomedy sums up the quotidian madness of the region.
One of the strengths of “Waiting for Giraffes” is the casual indirectness with which it approaches such huge controversies. By contrast, “In Between” has a blunt-force-trauma approach to its vison of sisterly solidarity between ill-assorted housemates. Writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud offers a sketchy portrait of Laila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jummalieh), roommates in the hip bubble of Tel Aviv, seemingly party girls, whose life is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of the cousin of their absent third roommate. Nour (Shaden Kanboura) is a devout Muslim, a computer science major with a religious (and censorious) fiancé.
After setting up the basic situation, Hamoud reveals the developing relationships with an ease that surprises. The flashy, music video-like cutting of the film’s opening partying shifts gears into longer takes and a series of hard-earned emotional climaxes. The coolly distanced approach Hamoud takes makes such events as a rape and the family-shattering revelation that Salma is a lesbian all the more powerful by dropping their temperature from potentially melodramatic intensity into something more deeply felt but less obvious.
The film, with its Israeli funding and vision of sternly independent women, has divided the Palestinian community pretty harshly, even engendering harsh criticism against the Budapest-born Palestinian filmmaker. But “In Between” has multiple nominations for the Ophirs (the Israeli version of the Oscars) and puts Hamoud squarely on the map of bright young filmmakers.
The same should be said of Shady Srour, the writer-director and star of “Holy Air,” which is a pure delight. Srour is a burly, bearded version of Jeff Goldblum, diffident and wry, a man who stands apart, observing the quirks of his fellow humans. Adam, the central character of the film, is played by its director; he is a happily married Arab Christian resident of Nazareth and a struggling businessman with a taste for high-risk, no-return gimmicks. As such, he fits in perfectly with a vision of Nazareth and Jerusalem as places in which everyone is a hustler and every business proposition a con.
At the heart of Adam’s world are his sex-obsessed wife Lamia (Laeticia Eido) and his father (Tariq Copti), who is dying of cancer. Lamia wants a child desperately and Dad wants a grandson. Adam is happy to accommodate, but he needs a business success to make it possible and, one suspects, to prove to himself his worthiness for fatherhood. When he hits upon the insane but brilliant idea of selling bottled air from Mount Precipice – Holy Air, “I get it for nothing and I sell it for money” — it looks like he has found his pot of gold. After, of course, he cuts in the Catholic Church, the Israeli minister of tourism and the local mob guys.
If “In Between” starts out jaggedly and then finds a slower rhythm, “Holy Air” inventively reverses the process, beginning with a series of buoyantly funny long takes, then fragmenting its vision as Adam’s potential business success leads to family fractures. It’s an ingenious structure leading to a charming, daft and deft film.
The 11th Annual Other Israel Film Festival will run from Nov. 2-9. Most screenings will take place at the JCC Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue). For information, go to https://www.otherisrael.org/.