Emmanuel Levinas, one of the central Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, argued that by seeing the face of another we are forced to acknowledge our involvement with the Other. As Levinas writes in one of the most famous passages in his work, such a vision involves recognition of a shared humanity and a shared mortality.
Hence, to see the face of the Other is to be forcibly reminded of the edict, “Thou shall not kill.” When it began life six years ago, the Other Israel Film Festival took as its focus the lives of Israel’s non-Jewish population, the Druze, Bedouins and Israeli Arabs whose lives represent a different portion of the Jewish state, hence the event’s name. With this year’s event, which opens this week, the festival has taken a subtle shift towards Levinas’ more universal understanding of otherness. The result is one of the best editions of Other Israel since its inception, with a strong slate that includes four U.S and five New York premieres and, of the five films available to me at press time, not a single false step.
“One Day After Peace,” directed by Erez and Miri Laufer, is the most prominent example of the festival’s broadened reach. Although the film’s protagonist is Israeli and her own personal struggle is centered on the Palestinians, it would be hard to find a film that addresses the basic nature of alterity, otherness, more directly or more universally from the starting point of Israel.
At the center of this thoughtful documentary is Robi Damelin, peace activist and a Jew formerly from South Africa, whose son David was one of 10 people murdered by a Palestinian sniper at a West Bank checkpoint. Several years after the incident, the killer Thaer Hamid was apprehended and is now serving 11 consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison. Robi decided to contact him in an attempt to achieve some understanding of his crime and reach that much-discussed and largely mythical state of closure. “I don’t want to create a friendship with this man,” she explains to her other, very skeptical son. But she is nagged by the question of David’s death. “For what?” she asks.
Stymied by the empty reply she receives from Hamid and still searching for answers, Damelin returns to South Africa for the first time since 1967. She wants to examine the work of the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, frequently held up as a model of conflict resolution in the aftermath of great and tragic political crimes.
The post-apartheid TRC granted amnesty to anyone who offered a public confession in its meetings, and perpetrators from both sides of the political conflict availed themselves of its services, with at least a few startling results. The filmmakers and Damelin follow the work of Adriaan Vlok, a former minister of law and order in the apartheid government, as he embarks on his monthly routine of bringing food to the victims’ families. They also focus on former armed guerrillas who atone for terror attacks from the past.
Can the TRC possibly serve as a model for a post-conflict Israel and Palestine? Desmond Tutu, who headed the commission, says, “Had there not been a TRC, our country would have gone up in flames.” But Damelin and the filmmakers are a bit more skeptical. When Hamid’s name is suggested as one of 1,000 prisoners to be exchanged for Gilad Shalit, the questions strike closer to home, insistently. The great strength of “One Day After Peace” is that neither Robi Damelin nor the filmmakers pretend that those questions have easy or definitive answers. The resulting work is one that nags at the conscience long after the end credits have rolled. This is precisely the sort of film that the festival was created to show us.
“Sharquiya” is the sort of film for which the festival was originally designed, a superb low-key drama about a small Bedouin family facing the demolition of its meager homes at the edge of the Negev. Kamel (Adnan Abu Wadi) is a veteran of the Israeli army who works a dead-end job as a guard at the Be’er-Sheva bus station. He lives with his older brother Khaled (Adnan Abu Muhareb) and sister-in-law Nadia (Mayse Abed Alhadi) in a pathetic cluster of shacks jury-rigged from corrugated sheet steel and wood. Their power is supplied by an ancient gas-driven generator that wheezes like an asthmatic sewing machine, they bring in water from a local well in a decrepit tractor, and raise a small flock of goats.
Ami Livne, whose first feature this is, chooses a variation on the contemporary version of neo-realism that has become something of a global style in the past 20 years. She combines the quasi-documentary use of hand-held camera, real settings and non-actors with the detached minimalism of directors as different as Robert Bresson and Bela Tarr. Visually, the film is aided immeasurably by the soft-edged DV work of Boaz Yehonathan Ya’acov, but it is unmistakably Livne’s sense of control and subdued drama that gives “Sharqiya” its considerable kick. Aided by Livne’s sure tone, Guy Ofran’s screenplay finds a splendid balance between the potential melodrama of the situation, particularly when Kamel devises a plan to try to save their homes, and the ordinariness of both the people and their plight.
Kamel’s inventiveness — he is a skilled electronics tinkerer — is indicative of a guy who refuses to take “No” for an answer. In that regard, like Robi Damelin, he resembles the central figures of two other films in this year’s festival.
Ameer is a young Israeli Arab whose father, uncles and grandfather all served voluntarily in the IDF. At the center of “Ameer Got His Gun,” an astute hour-long documentary by Naomi Levari, is the title character’s determination to follow the family tradition. Assigned to the Border Police, he finds himself in Hebron, where he gets the opportunity to put his idealistic notion of service to his country to concrete use. Like Ameer, Louie, a gay Palestinian who is the central figure of “The Invisible Men,” is caught in a cultural crossfire. He has lived illegally for almost a decade in Tel Aviv, unable and unwilling to be sent back to Ramallah, where he would be a target for abuse by his homophobic family. The film’s director, Yariv Mozer, follows Louie and several other similarly unanchored gay Palestinians as they seek a way to survive. Ultimately, the only viable solution is to accept asylum in a European country, but Louie’s stubborn insistence on his individuality is admirable.
Shlomi Elkabetz, whose previous films “Shiva” and “Take a Wife” were co-directed with his sister, Ronit, who also starred in them, is represented in this year’s festival by “Testimony.” The new is a singular departure from those entertaining comedy-family melodrama hybrids. Reminiscent of the late, formally rigorous, word-drunk pastoral works of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, “Testimony” consists of a series of monologues. Well-known actors in natural settings coolly tells of abuses suffered by Palestinians and by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories. The natural settings create a startling discordance between image and word, yet they somehow force our attention onto the content of each statement. Some of Elkabetz’s choices are downright odd (two men up to their chests in a very blue lake, for example), and I’m frankly baffled by some of his editing decisions, but in the end the film is both disconcerting and compulsively fascinating. You might say that, as a director, Elkabetz is another man who won’t accept a reply in the negative.
The 6th annual Other Israel Film Festival runs from Nov. 8-15. Films will screen at the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Ave.) and the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.). For information, go to www.otherisrael.org or call (646) 505-5708. This year, the festival will also offer nationwide access to select films and conversations on its streaming site, www.OtherIsraelOnDemand.org.